Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
The so-called "BRICS"—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—are a group of countries that have enjoyed relatively fast economic growth and increased political influence. Russia's economy used to occupy the middle tier of the BRICS, but today many Russians worry that it is dropping to the bottom of the group.
In the middle of the last decade, Russian economic growth—around 7 percent—was slower than that of India (often close to 10 percent) and China (usually more than 10 percent), but faster than Brazil and South Africa (usually around 5 percent).
Except for China, the crisis of 2008-2009 was hard for all the BRICS economies. Russia's GDP declined by almost 8 percent in 2009. Its post-crisis growth rate has been between 3 and 4 percent—a nice recovery—but Russians now fear a further slowdown. Growth in the first quarter of 2013 was just 1.6 percent. Some economists predict a recession by the end of the year.
Not surprisingly, this new downward trend has reignited debate over Russian economic policy. Some say lower growth is unavoidable given the turmoil of the Eurozone, as the European Union accounts for 44.4 percent of Russian exports. Others argue that it reflects broader issues—including Putin's failure to diversify the Russian economy, address corruption, attract large-scale foreign investment, and encourage business startups.
Slower economic growth has obvious political implications. Over the past month there have been forecasts of a cabinet shakeup and reports of tension between President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev. Putin has publicly dressed down government ministers, demanding better performance. Short of a turnaround, economic growth is likely to remain the most contentious issue of Russian politics.