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Blame Game Begins As Ruble Plummets

Bank of Russia Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina has become a target of political and public criticism alike.
Bank of Russia Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina has become a target of political and public criticism alike.

There's an old Russian saying, "Ne valite s bolnoi golovy na zdorovuyu." Literally meaning, don't shift your problems from a sick head to a healthy one -- or don't blame others for your troubles.

It's good advice that may go largely ignored as Russia, grappling with a plummeting ruble, looks for someone to blame for the worst economic calamity to befall the country in 16 years.

Dry-eyed economists have suggested that it's a combination of Western sanctions and sinking world oil prices that have contributed to the ruble's precipitous drop. But some Russian officials and citizens are pointing their fingers at more convenient scapegoats:

1) Elvira Nabiullina
Heading the central bank of Russia may currently seem like the world's worst job, especially when the best you have to offer is bitter pills. Nabiullina -- who has run the Bank of Russia since 2013 and approved the December 16 decision to hike its key interest rate from 10.5 to 17 percent -- has suggested the ruble plunge is a sign that Russia "must learn to live in a new reality."

​But some State Duma deputies have called on Nabiullina to appear before parliament and explain what Communist Party lawmaker Nikolai Arefyev called the "state crime" of the rate hike. In a particularly ugly stroke, Russian trolls have also taken advantage of the opportunity to remind the Twittersphere that Nabiullina is not Russian, but an ethnic Tatar.

2) The West
Always a safe fallback, and in this case at least partially true, given the effect of the sanctions the West has imposed on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine. One Muscovite told Reuters news agency the ruble crisis "shows the Americans want to topple our president." Others told RFE/RL that the European Union, Ukraine, and "stupid Americans" alike were to blame.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin likewise blamed the West, but refused to acknowledge that it was the sanctions to blame. "It's not the sanctions but rather our harmful financial, technological dependence on the West that has become the cause of our vulnerability," he wrote on Twitter. He added, "Our policy to create our own national financial system, import substitution, and development of national industry is absolutely right."

3) Currency Speculators
Vladimir Putin, in his state-of-the-union address on December 4, blamed "so-called speculators" for the ruble's decline (on December 4, the ruble was at a now relatively healthy sounding 54.4 to the dollar) and called on the central bank and government to take "tough, coordinated action" against them.

Nabiullina has since said, however, that current Russian legislation is sufficient to prevent market manipulation. She also said the central bank is currently investigating only one such case. Meanwhile, many ordinary Russians are panic-buying dollars, euros, and even Ukrainian hryvnyas, prompting one Putin adviser to blame the currency turbulence on "emotions and a speculative mood."

ALSO READ: The Ruble's Volatile Two Decades

4) Rosneft
It's only a matter of time before members of Putin's inner circle begin squabbling. The first blow, in fact, has already come, with former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin writing on Twitter that the currency collapse had been exacerbated by a mysterious, multibillion-ruble deal involving the central bank and state-run oil firm Rosneft last week.

Kudrin called the deal -- which some critics have likened to a central-bank bailout of Rosneft -- "extremely bad timing." Rosneft head and Putin ally Igor Sechin rejected any tie between the bond issue and the ruble collapse, accusing critics of "provocation."

5) Dmitry Medvedev
Prime ministers, especially hapless ones, are convenient scapegoats in times of crisis. Rumors are already circulating that Medvedev is due to be replaced by none other than Kudrin himself.

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