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A dwindling number of options

Western sanctions corral Damascus toward Moscow

by Jihad Yazigi

Press reports that the Syrian government is printing money in Russia to pay civil servants salaries and to close its budget deficit have raised serious concerns.

Two issues — one political and the other financial — are at stake.

The decision to print Syrian bank notes in Russia has been known for some time, as the Minister of Finance, Mohammad Jleilati, announced at the end of May that his government was close to finalizing discussions with the Russian authorities for that purpose. It follows a ban imposed last fall by the European Union on printing Syrian bank notes; two EU members, Austria and Belgium, were among the countries printing Syrian currencies.

However, by going to Moscow, the Syrian authorities have only confirmed an increased dependency towards their Russian counterparts, with all the political consequences that this new state of affairs may entail. For months now, the consecutive rounds of sanctions imposed by the EU, the United States, the Arab League and Turkey have squeezed the Syrian government’s room to maneuver and increased reliance on Russia. Last December, for instance, the Central Bank of Syria announced that it had opened correspondent accounts with three Russian banks — VTB, VEB and Gazprombank — in a bid to avert new sanctions on its foreign assets by the European Union, which were eventually imposed in February.

Since then, there has been speculation that much of the country’s foreign reserves had been moved to Moscow, though a lack of transparency makes it difficult to confirm the location of these assets or their size (estimated at around $17 billion prior to the beginning of the uprising in March 2011). Other indications of this growing dependency include negotiations to have Syria join the existing Customs Union that consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, or the recent series of bilateral agreements in sectors as varied as petroleum, electricity and manufacturing.

As international calls for action to stop the bloodshed in Syria grow, Russia is likely to hold an increasing number of cards in its hand to pressure Damascus. From a financial and monetary point of view, however, the main issue of concern is not where Syria prints its currency but for what purpose. Indeed, while the story initially published by Reuters quoted Syrian bankers saying that the newly printed money was meant to finance the government’s deficit, the governor of the Syrian Central Bank strongly denied it, saying that the new bank notes would replace worn out bills, an operation the central bank “has been regularly doing since it was established just like every central bank around the world.” The government has also denied it was having any difficulties financing salaries and other payables; Jleilati recently said that the 2012 budget deficit was forecast at a reasonable 6 to 7 percent of gross domestic product, in line with expectations. The Minister of Finance has an obvious interest in downplaying the difficulties his government is facing, but while there is little doubt that the treasury is increasingly strained, it is difficult to claim that a collapse is imminent.

It will not be easy to identify the purpose for the government to print new bank notes. Since May 2011, the Central Bank has stopped publishing its monthly bulletin, which reported, among other things, the levels of money supply. What is clear, however, is that if the government were to resort to the printing press to finance its expenses, the risk is an immediate inflationary impact.

While the government had managed to keep a relative lid on the consumer price index for most of last year, prices have jumped in recent months, climbing 15 percent in January on an annual basis, and more than 30 percent in March and April — including a more than 40 percent increase in the food and beverages category. Relying on the printing press, therefore, risks increased social unrest.

However, the only obvious conclusion from this debate is that both from a political point of view and from a financial rationale, the options at the hands of the Syrian government are fast declining.


JIHAD YAZIGI is editor-in-chief of The Syria Report

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