Putin slammed as 'naked king'...but ruble rallies

A high-profile critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin has likened him to a "naked king", saying that he presiding over an economy that will weaken further, but the Russian currency at least looks to be in recovery.

"Putin with (a) bare chest isn't a mighty leader: He is a naked king," Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oil orligarch, said Thursday, according to a Reuters report, saying that Putin's power was waning.

"Russia will have to stand long in agony by the bed of the sick emperor. It will be painful for the population and dangerous for the West," he added.

Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man as the head of oil giant Yukos but was arrested and jailed in 2003 on allegations of tax evasion and fraud in a case that was widely seen as politically motivated due to his criticism of Putin.

Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Klimentyev | RIA Novosti | Kremlin | Reuters
Vladimir Putin

After spending 10 years in custody, Khodorkovsky was released in 2013 after a pardon from Putin so his latest comments are bound to enrage the Russian leader.

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Speaking in London, Khodorkovsky said the Russian economy would weaken further and called on the West to build ties with opposition groups in Russia, ahead of the end of the Putin regime.

"Tomorrow when the regime changes you will have to build a relationship and you will have very little time," Khodorkovsky said.

It's up to Russia

His claims that the economy are weakening come at a time when Russia is expected to enter recession in 2015, a forecast made by the country's central bank on the back of the sharp drop in oil price since last June.

Things could be tentatively on the turn for Russia, however, with signs that its bonds, equities and currency, the ruble, are rallying.

Not only is the Russian stock market the best performing one of the year so far (102450195) but the ruble appears to be heading towards its best month in two decades, fuelled by a rebound in oil prices.

After strengthening almost 20 percent against the ruble in January to reach a high of 71.7 rubles, in February the greenback has weakened 11.2 against the ruble – the sharpest decline since 1995, at least. The rebound has occured against a backdrop of rallying oil prices from lows of around $45 a barrel to around $61 per barrel currently. On Friday, the ruble was trading at 61 to the dollar.

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The ruble could strengthen further, according to Oleg Kouzmin, an economist for Russia at Renaissance Capital, but that depended on Russia's behavior over Ukraine, where a tentative cease-fire between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukraine military has taken hold.

Russia is still under sanctions for its role in the conflict, which have damaged its economy further. If sanctions and capital flight from Russia as a result were to continue, the ruble could yet again weaken, Kouzmin said.

"At average $60 a barrel oil prices, we see the year-average exchange rate at 56-57 rubles to the dollar in 2015," Kouzmin said in a note Friday. "However, the main risk we see now is that the Russian downgrade to non-investment grade could breach loan covenants. We do not think this is totally out of the question, despite the stronger performance of the ruble in recent days."

"According to estimates from the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, the loss of investment-grade credit status could boost capital flight by $20-30 billion in 2015, which, in turn, we calculate might increase debt redemptions to around $105 billion, from our estimate of $80 billion if EU sanctions remain in place in the third quarter of 2015," Kouzmin said.

In that scenario, RenCap's year-average rouble forecasts would be lifted by around 11 percent, he said. "For example, at average $60 a barrel oil prices, it would lift our year-average forecast from 56-57 rubles per dollar to 62-63 rubles per dollar."