Free Float Seen as Key For Reserve Currency

The exchange rate regime will need to be liberalized if the country wants the ruble to become a reserve currency, fulfilling an ambition stated by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, analysts said Friday.

Medvedev, who is widely expected to win the March 2 presidential election, said the country should take advantage of the diminishing global role of the dollar and make the ruble a regional reserve currency.

"Today the global economy is going through uneasy times. The role of the key reserve currencies is under review. And we must take advantage of it," Medvedev said in a keynote speech in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

"The ruble will de facto become one of the regional reserve currencies."

The country uses a managed float of the ruble, keeping it stable against a dollar-and-euro basket, but Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said the country would allow the ruble to float freely in three years.

Medvedev did not mention the ruble's free float or inflation targeting in his speech, but analysts said the float was an important precondition for a decision to include a currency in gold and forex reserves.

"An inclusion of a currency in reserves requires an exchange rate set by the market and a steady demand for this currency," said Alexander Morozov, senior economist at HSBC.

Under a fixed exchange rate regime, the rate is de facto set by the central bank, and a country that decides to include such currency in reserves may face political risks.

"Today the ruble is a voucher for oil and oil products. There is much to be done for it to become a reserve currency," said Nikolai Kashcheyev, an economist at VTB bank.

Medvedev first spoke about the dollar's weakness in a speech in St. Petersburg in June 2006, when he emerged as a serious contender to succeed President Vladimir Putin.

The floating exchange rate may become one of the most ambitious targets for the next presidential term, but opponents said that after the devaluations and confiscatory banknote swaps of the 1990s, Russians were not yet ready for a free float.

The country ran a trade surplus of about $23 billion in 2007 with its ex-Soviet neighbors and is an important trade partner for countries like Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which run gold and forex reserves of $19 billion and $32 billion, respectively.

"We need to encourage ruble payments for our raw materials exports," Medvedev said.

The country has been gradually losing its influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been accused by the West of using its energy resources as a weapon when dealing with its neighbors.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov told RIA-Novosti in an interview last month that Kazakhstan did not plan to include the ruble in its reserves.

Masimov said Russia should first fulfill its ambition to become the world's fifth-largest economy.

Russia, which receives most of its energy revenues in dollars, buys euros, pounds sterling, yen and Swiss francs to diversify its $478 billion gold and forex reserves, the world's third-largest.