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Russia's Troubled Economy Overlooked In 2017


With all the reports of Russian interference in our presidential election, you might have gotten the impression that Vladimir Putin is a master manipulator. But there are forces, of course, that are beyond Putin's ability to control, including the Russian economy. Our correspondent in Moscow Lucian Kim says the state of the economy is one of the overlooked news stories from Russia this year, and he joins me now on the line. Hi, Lucian.


FRAYER: So how is the Russian economy faring? It's been a couple years since the U.S. and other countries imposed sanctions, after Russia's aggression in Ukraine and also since the price of oil has tanked.

KIM: Right. It was really a double whammy. The sanctions affected mostly state companies. It made it very hard for them to borrow internationally. But there was also collateral damage. It just created a lot of uncertainty about the Russian economy, and investors began to flee. The Russian ruble also took a real plunge, and today, I mean, it's only worth half as much against the U.S. dollar than it was a few years ago.

FRAYER: And so what does that mean for regular people?

KIM: Well, food prices have gone up, and because of the the ruble's plunge, they've really seen their buying power for a lot of imported consumer goods also go down. And of course salaries have been growing very slowly.

FRAYER: So Lucian, you live in Moscow. You also get out and about around Russia. Has the economic pain been felt equally throughout the country?

KIM: I wouldn't say so. So this week I did go out to Tula. It's about a hundred miles south of Moscow. It's the center of Russia's gun industry. And there, in the Central Park, I talked to one retired librarian. She wasn't very happy with her pension. She says she has a part-time job to make ends meet, but she said in comparison to the 1990s when the entire Communist economy collapsed, things are much better. And then I spoke to a 19-year-old student. Her name is Yana Fedoseyeva, and she says she doesn't agree with older people like that at all.

YANA FEDOSEYEVA: They compare our economical situation with our past economical situation, how it was in Russia in '90s. But we, my generation, we compare our economical situation with economical situation in other countries - in Europe, and America and even in Asia.

FRAYER: So it sounds like it's really generational, those who remember the worst times in the past and the new generation. So normally we think a weak economy hurts the incumbent. Putin faces an election next year. Now, we know Russia's not exactly a vigorous democracy, but does Putin have to worry about voters like the young woman, Yana, we just heard from?

KIM: Well, for years the conventional wisdom on Russia was that once the economy goes south, when the oil money dries up, the Putin magic will sort of fizzle. But for the last three years, he's really been able to rally Russians around the flag by saying the West is trying to hurt Russia with sanctions and that there's sort of a U.S.-led conspiracy to put Russia in its place. I do think he's worried about the younger generation, but for now he's really relying on inertia, sort of on Russia's fear of the unknown and their memory of the economic chaos that they experienced in the past.

FRAYER: And so despite an ailing economy now, is he still doing well in the polls ahead of the election?

KIM: Well, just a recent poll showed that 61 percent of Russians would vote for him. But of course, as you mentioned, this is quite a regimented system where the government controls all the TV stations, and not everyone is allowed to run against him.

FRAYER: Interesting. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow, thank you very much.

KIM: Thanks, Lauren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
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