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How €37bn power display highlights big Russian flaws


Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts guests following the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony

Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts guests following the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony

AP Photo/David Goldman, Pool

Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts guests following the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony

For many people, the Sochi Winter Olympics will be about Vladamir Putin and politics; for others they will be about swagger; for some they may even be about sport. But arguably the most important aspect of the Games, or at least the one with the greatest long-term resonance, will be economics. For though the Games are designed to demonstrate the power of the Russian economy, they actually will highlight quite the opposite: its weakness.

For a start, the Games are stunningly, ludicrously, absurdly expensive. To take a round figure, they look like costing $50bn (€36.7bn). Up to now the most expensive Games have been Beijing in 2008, at some $40bn. You would expect winter Olympics to cost perhaps half that of summer ones. So Sochi is huge.

Put it in the context of the Russian economy and it is even huger. Russian GDP this year will be about $2,100bn, so the cost is equivalent to 2.5pc of GDP. An entire year's growth, maybe two years', is being blown on one event.

It gets worse. The problem is not only the waste. It is the reasons why that waste has been allowed to occur, for these show much wider weaknesses in the management of the Russian economy.

This was billed as a public-private partnership between state-owned enterprises and private-sector tycoons, but actually it turned out to be a top-down exercise, with Mr Putin supervising detailed elements of the plan.

Thus Gazprom, the giant oil and gas group, built the cross-country skiing complex, having bought the mountain it sat on. The aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska built the airport and Olympic village. Other favoured business leaders got other contracts.

So the choice of investment was not based on likely return or careful use of resources; it was loyalty.

When costs overran, as they seem always to do, there was a scramble to apportion blame. Some of the tycoons, such as Akhmed Bilalov, whose companies built the ski-jump, have been removed. (He says he was poisoned too.)

There is a clip on Russian TV of Mr Putin being told that the ski-jump was more than two years late and four times over budget. "So 1.2bn turned into 8bn," he snarled. "Well done. Good work. Let's continue."

He was mercifully talking in roubles, not dollars. While all large infrastructure projects are extremely hard to manage, the scale of mismanagement here is extreme. It would have been extreme even without the little matter of bribery, estimated to have added at least 20pc to the costs.

If a country has great growth prospects it can get away with big policy mistakes. You grow through them.

Russia has rather poor growth prospects, but it has had a very good run over the past 15 years, with GDP per head increasing from less than $2,000 in current dollars in 2000 to $15,000 today. Part of that is inflation, part a revaluation of the rouble, but real living standards have tripled over this period. The good news ends there. If you look forward, there is one overriding headwind and one overriding structural weakness.

The headwind is a falling population. It is currently 143 million. By 2050, this is projected to decline to 109 million.

The structural weakness is Russia's dependence on raw material exports, particularly oil and gas. Energy exports are 75pc of the total, higher even than in Soviet times.

Do not underrate Russia. There are embedded strengths in its human capital as well as its natural resources.

But as Adam Smith remarked to a friend in 1777: "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation", and Sochi exemplifies Russia's capacity to put this on display. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent