Elvira Nabioullina, Vladimir Putin’s loyal central banker

When will an ingenious central banker, praised for his efficient work, be complicit in a murderous regime? Are there, for competent Russian technocrats, any choice but to fly or compromise? Elvira Nabioullina may have asked herself these existential questions when she showed up, dressed entirely in black, for a short solemn speech on 28 February. Russia had invaded Ukraine four days earlier, and the West had just frozen the assets of the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), of which she is governor. At least half of this $ 630 billion (587 billion francs) Russian “war chest”, carefully accumulated over many years of work, was now inaccessible.

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Without mentioning the war or even the “special military operation” in place, according to Kremlin terminology, Elvira Nabioullina announced a brutal means of trying to limit the Russian financial panic: a doubling of the key interest rate to 20% and strict capital controls. On Wednesday, March 16, she suffered the violation of being central bank governor when the country missed a deadline for debt repayment and took the first step toward default.

Serious tone and face, Elvira Nabiullina has been Vladimir Putin’s central banker since June 2013. Her professionalism is beyond doubt: “She is competent, open to dialogue, rational,” said Sergei Guriev, a former economic adviser to the Russian government who regularly worked with her. He took the road to exile in France in 2012 after criticizing the arrests of political opponents. She chose to climb the ladder of a glorious career. “Putin believes she is loyal to him, otherwise she would not have held this position. She probably has a relationship of trust with him,” Sergei Guriev continued. The Russian president also announced on March 18 that he wanted to reappoint her. as head of the central bank.

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“She is not worried about the interests of the Russians”

Daniela Gabor, a specialist in central banking at the University of the West of England in Bristol, confirms this, but in a more brutal way. Competent technocrats supporting murderous dictatorships hiding behind pretext of “working for the Russian people” should be sent to The Hague [où siège la Cour pénale internationale]. “” She is part of the Russian system. She is not worried about the interests of the Russians, but about the interests of the Kremlin, “adds Maximilian Hess, a specialist in Russia at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, an American think tank.

After the invasion of Ukraine, rumors circulated that she was trying to quit. The information is impossible to verify. “It is difficult, even dangerous, for her to leave her position,” notes Sergei Guriev. Elvira Nabioullina has now gone too far so she can no longer abandon the regime in place.

She was born in 1963 in Oufa in central Russia and completed her economics studies in Moscow in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She went through the chaos of the 1990s by filling various positions as an adviser to Russian employers and then to the government. She then held ministerial roles, particularly as Foreign Minister for Development and Trade Minister. In 2012, she became financial adviser to Vladimir Putin, who appointed her a year later to head the central bank.

Positive results in controlling inflation

The site she has to monitor is huge. Inflation is close to 10% and the financial system is saturated with small, corrupt institutions. One of his predecessors, Andrei Kozlov, was assassinated in 2006 while trying to clean it up. “She was very brave and closed hundreds of companies,” recalls Sergei Guriev. On the other hand, it is not about touching state banks: despite a wealth of recapitalisations and at times catastrophic management, these have remained out of reach of the CBR.

Its record is also positive in terms of controlling inflation. Elvira Nabioullina adopted a target of 4% price increase and managed to achieve it. “It is very impressive for Russia, which is not a developed economy,” said Sergei Guriev.

By maneuvering skilfully, the central banker seems to have understood the limits imposed by the Kremlin. She allows herself a single fantasy: For every occasion, she likes to complete her messages with a brooch that symbolizes her message. An interest rate cut? The governor carries a dove. A containment order linked to the Covid-19 pandemic? She puts a small house on the reverse of her jacket to encourage Russians to stay home.

For her speech after the invasion of Ukraine, she chose black, without any decorations. The color of grief, probably to bury the years of work and effort, now ruined by the sanctions caused by the war.

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