Ben Aris in Moscow -
After waiting for more than 19 years, Russia finally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August 2012. The effect has been immediate and dramatic: imports into Russia have soared and nowhere have they grown faster than in consumer products.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a big gamble. Joining the WTO exposes Russia's young companies to unfettered competition from the best businesses in the world. And thanks to lackadaisical growth in their home markets, these multinationals have charged into Russia. In the last two years, just the foreign fast-moving consumer goods companies have committed some $10bn to entering Russia or expanding their operations there.
Of course, the most "strategic sectors" (and ones where the government is heavily present) continue to receive tariff protection, which will be phased out over eight years for the most sensitive products like agriculture and cars. Russia has alreday been criticised for dragging its heels on meeting its WTO obligations: the recent Russian decision to ban US meat imports on medical grounds (its meat contains a stimulant called ractopamine that is banned in Russia and the EU) is indicative of the growing pains that Russia's full integration into the global economy will have to go through.
But on the whole, the world's multinationals have clapped their hands in glee at being able to export their goods to Russia more easily and at a lower cost. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, Russian imports of goods exceeded $300bn in 2012 (versus total retail sales of $670bn), a new record and up 15% from 2011.
Imports as a percentage of GDP have been, in real terms, on an upward trend since the ruble crisis in 1998, according to independent researchers GaveKal. More recently, WTO entry has had a strong impact on food imports, as tariffs on pork and dairy products were cut heavily, which has provoked a revolt by local producers.
But the trend is clearly helping consumers, and this in itself is a powerful economic incentive to stay the course. "So even though the EU trade commissioner is right to pressure Russia on its WTO commitments, the truth is that European exporters have been, along with the Chinese, the main beneficiaries of the rise in Russian consumption and investment demand," says Francois-Xavier Chauchat, an analyst with GaveKal. "EU goods exports to Russia have doubled since the trough of 2009, mainly thanks to capital goods, cars, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and food products. Russia is also, with China, the most important emerging market for EU exporters of business services."
Some of this is simply post-crisis catch-up, but the official statistics show that the recovery in inbound goods from the EU had already regained their pre-crisis levels in 2011 and have been powering ahead since then. Imports should reach 30% of annual GDP next year.
Government relations with the EU are maybe at their nadir since Russia ostentatiously turned its back on the west and opened up towards its new friend China in November last year at the ASEAN summit. But that is not true for western companies, which are welcome and new super-stores are opening on a weekly basis around the entire country. McDonalds will launch operations in Siberia this summer and Burger King now has over 70 restaurants in Russia after only entering the market in 2011, to name just two examples.
Chauchat says this underlying trend of a rising middle class was well anticipated by many European and US multinationals producing consumer goods in the food, retailing, car or medical drugs sectors, which have been investing massively in Russia since the beginning of the 2000s. "By the end of the decade, Russia could become the biggest retail market in Europe, with real consumer spending rising 3 to 5% per year," says Chauchat. "As soon as this year, car sales should match German levels at about 3m vehicles. If the optimists are right, Russia will become the economic giant of Europe by the end of this decade and this is certainly not priced in to the listed retail companies."
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