In 1991, the Russian Federation rose from the ashes of the former Soviet Union in economic and political turmoil. Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar led free-market reforms in 1992, and many Russians accused him and the Russian government of corruption and poor management, leading to the rise of the oligarchs. Many former party members and enterprising individuals took advantage of the disorganization of the new state’s economy and government in order to privately take control of assets and former state-run companies.
The high concentration of wealth in the hands of only a few rich men was detrimental to the Russian economy and its new democratic government. Credit access in Russia was easy to acquire for these men, as many ran the banks and largest companies in the country; unfortunately, credit was not as accessible to common Russian people. In 2004, President Vladimir Putin declared war on the oligarchs. As a result, Mikhail Khodorkovsky — one of the richest men in Russia at the time due to his ownership of the oil company Yukos — and Putin’s chief political rival were jailed. Other oligarchs suffered the same fate in the name of improving the lives of the lives of the common Russian people.
The Long Game
Despite these gains, credit access in Russia was not going to improve overnight. The immense size of the Russian Federation hinders banking for the common Russian person still to this day. According to the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI), a major contributor to this issue is the combination of Russians living in rural areas of the country, the ability to reach banks and archaic and dysfunctional banking legislation.
The Ministry for Economic Development (MED), the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank of Russia and the Russian Micro Finance Center compiled a team of experts to visit and study other banking systems so as to work to improve their own. In 2010, their findings influenced laws that allowed banks broader powers to provide financial services to their clients and ease credit access in Russia. But due to the lack of clarity and infrastructure, the banks were not able to take advantage of these new reforms.
This trend is not new to Russia and had to be fixed by government intervention. Russian’s Ministry of Economic Development received a long-term grant from the AFI in order to improve banking access to Russians. Increased access to banks improves credit access in Russia, and in 2012 the AFI stated that their were 40,000 banks to the 143 million Russians. By the end of their partnership with the MED, their goal is to increase the number of banks to 50,000.
The improvement of domestic banks helped the Russian economy to function after the United States and the European Union levied sanctions against Russian companies and government officials. Russian companies were forced to use Russian banks instead of foreign banks, and those companies who were not sanctioned began using Russian banks in fear of finding their name added to the sanctioned list.
This increase in power of the banks has increased credit access in Russia. Although it has been good for businesses, banks have begun a system of predatory lending. Tuva, one of Russia’s poorest and most undeveloped regions, has seen an increase in borrowing. Much of this money is used to either pay off existing accrued debt or to maintain the standard of living.
It is estimated that average household in Russia spends 15 percent of its income managing debt. Interest rates have also climbed higher, thereby making it more difficult for these Russians to climb out of debt and for the banks to make their money back. High interest rates have driven off people who could afford to pay back loans, and this money would help banks recoup their losses. In 2014, the Russian government was forced to bail out two of the country’s top five lenders.
Credit access in Russia has improved dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the quality of the banking system has fluctuated. To save its economy, the Russian government needs to once again improve the country’s banking system, including its lending practices. Although rural citizens have better access to credit, it only does them harm if they are unable to save themselves from debt.
– Nick DeMarco