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Russia Is the Next Greece: World Bank Economist

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Russia may be the next domino to fall, according to Sergei Ulatov, the resident World Bank economist in Moscow.

Bloomberg reports Ulatov, in an interview on Thursday at the Russia and CIS Capital Markets Forum in London, said Russia might face a debt crisis similar to the one gripping Greece by 2030 unless the government reduced spending.

“By 2030 the debt level would be unsustainable like in Greece” if nothing changes, he said. “Right now, we are mostly helped by oil prices and not by a very prudent macroeconomic policy.”

By 2015, Russia won’t be able to cover the shortfall in the pension fund even if oil were to reach the break-even level of $115, Ulatov said.

Bloomberg notes that Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin this week urged the government to cap annual spending increases at 4% to stabilize public finances and avoid state “paternalism” in running the economy. The budget deficit may narrow to less than 0.5% of gross domestic product this year if the price of Urals crude averages $115 a barrel, according to Kudrin.

However, oil prices tumbled to the lowest level in four months on Monday after the International Energy Agency said its members would release crude from strategic reserves. Urals crude, Russia’s benchmark export blend, has averaged about $108 a barrel this year and dropped 5.2% to $105.83 on Monday.

Bloomberg reports that in an e-mailed statement later in the day, the World Bank reiterated its official view on Russia, and said the world’s largest energy exporter will probably have monetary and current-account surpluses this year and in 2012 because of higher oil prices.

"Russia faces no traditional fiscal sustainability issues" because it has low government debt and $520 billion of foreign-currency reserves, the statement said. "Nevertheless, the non-oil fiscal deficit—which matters more for Russia’s long-term fiscal sustainability—remains large."

Big infrastructure projects including hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and 2018 World Cup will create an additional burden for the budget, according to the economist Ulatov.

“They will have to borrow,” he said. “They do have this capacity now, but for how long?”