Putin extols Russia’s pandemic response as retail sales jump in April

A shop assistant puts a sale sign on a show window in Moscow
FILE PHOTO: A shop assistant puts a sale sign on a show window in Moscow, Russia June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

June 4, 2021

By Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia’s economy avoided catastrophe during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and is now approaching pre-crisis levels, President Vladimir Putin said on Friday, an assertion backed up by data showing a 34.7% jump in retail sales in April.

Russia’s commodity-dependent economy is on the mend after a 3% contraction in 2020, its sharpest in 11 years, when lockdown restrictions stifled economic activity, but officials say a recovery to levels of late 2019 is imminent.

Retail sales, a barometer of consumer demand and Russia’s key economic driver, rose 34.7% in year-on-year terms, the Federal Statistics Service Rosstat said, beating a 23% increase forecast in a Reuters poll of analysts.

Rosstat also said Russia’s real wages, adjusted for inflation and reported one month later than other indicators, rose 1.8% in March, below a Reuters poll foreseeing 2.1%.

“The Russian economy and labour market are already approaching pre-crisis levels,” Putin said at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, claiming that Russia had avoided a “catastrophe” despite last year’s rise in unemployment and falling real incomes.

The unemployment rate peaked at 6.4% last year, but fell to a year low of 5.2% in April, data showed last month.

Economic growth and a recovery in living standards in Russia are a crucial issue for Putin and the United Russia ruling party. The latter is bracing for parliamentary elections in September after protests rocked the streets earlier this year.

Putin ordered that Russia’s anti-crisis mortgage programme be extended by one year to July 2022, saying state-sponsored aid to support the construction sector and households could not be stopped abruptly.

He also proposed a new support mechanism for small- and medium-sized enterprises — a loan guarantee with partner banks that could attract at least 600 billion roubles ($8.22 billion) in extra funds for smaller businesses by 2024 by giving them better access to credit.

Lending in Russia is on track to become more expensive as the central bank is expected to further raise rates amid high inflation, with the next hike possible later in June.

($1 = 72.9925 roubles)

(Reporting by Alexander Marrow, Oksana Kobzeva and Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Andrey Ostroukh and Toby Chopra)