In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, large parts of Europe have experienced skyrocketing energy prices and a threat of power shortages. The need to transition to low-carbon energy systems, driven by sustainability concerns, further adds to the pressure put on the European energy infrastructure. This year’s Energy Talk, organized by Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics, invited four experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges of energy infrastructure resilience in a foreseeable future.
Energy infrastructure has an indispensable role in facilitating the functioning of modern society, and it must – today as well as in the future – be resilient enough to withstand various challenges. One of the most important challenges – the green transition: shifting towards economically sustainable growth by decarbonizing energy systems and steering away from fossil fuels – requires energy infrastructure to absorb subsequent shocks. Another, and preeminent challenge, is that, even when directly targeted and partly destroyed as in the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, energy infrastructure should be withstanding. Additionally, energy infrastructure is increasingly subject to supply chain disruptions, energy costs increase or network congestions. How does our energy infrastructure react to these challenges? How do they affect its ability to facilitate the needs of the green transition? Which regulations/measures should be implemented to facilitate energy infrastructure resilience?
Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) invited four speakers to the 2023 annual Energy Talk to discuss the future of Europe’s Energy infrastructure resilience. This brief summarizes the main points from the presentations and discussions.
Energy System Resilience in the Baltics
Ewa Lazarczyk, Associate Professor at Reykjavik University, addressed the question of energy system resilience, focusing on the Baltic States and their dependence on Russia and other neighbors to fulfill their electricity needs.
The Baltic States are not self-sufficient when it comes to electricity consumption. Since 2009, Lithuania has become a net importer of electricity, relying on external sources to fulfill its electricity demand. Similarly, Estonia experienced a shift towards becoming a net importer of electricity around 2019, following the closure of environmentally detrimental oil fueled power plants.
The Baltics are integrated with the Nordic market and are heavily dependent on electricity imports from Finland and Sweden. Additionally, all three Baltic States are part of the BRELL network – a grid linking the electricity systems of Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – which provides stability for their electrical networks. As a result, despite the absence of commercial electricity trading between Estonia and Russia, and limited commercial trading between Russia and the other two Baltic states, the power flows between the Baltic States and Russia and Belarus still exist. This creates a noticeable dependency of the Baltics on Russia, and a potential threat, should Russia decide to disconnect the Baltics from BRELL before the planned separation in 2024/2025.
This dependency was put on trial when Russia on May 15th 2022 cut its electricity trade with Europe. On the one hand, the system proved to be relatively resilient as the cut did not lead to any blackouts in the Baltics. On the other hand, price volatility amplified in its main import partner countries, Sweden and Finland, and congestion increased as compared to 2021.
Figure 1. Price volatility in Sweden and Finland before and after the trade cut.
This increased price volatility and congestion following the Russian halt in electricity trade gives an indication that the Baltics and the Nordics are vulnerable to relatively small supply cuts even at the current demand levels.
In the future, electricity consumption is however expected to increase throughout the region as a result of the electrification of the economy (e.g., by 65 percent in 2050 in the Nordic region). This highlights the need to speed up investments into energy infrastructure of internal energy markets.
In summary; recent events have demonstrated a remarkable resilience of the Baltic State’s electricity system. While the disruption of commercial flows from Russia did have some impact on the region, overall, the outcome was positive. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the region relies heavily on electricity imports, and with increasing demand for power in both the Baltics and the neighboring areas, potential issues with supply security could arise if the demand in the Nordics cannot be met through increased production. The risk of an early disconnection from the BRELL network further amplifies this concern. However, the case of Ukraine – which managed to abruptly disconnect from Russian electricity networks – serves as an example that expediting the process of establishing new connections is feasible, although not risk free.
The Ukrainian Energy Sector and the Immediate Threat from Russia
While the Baltics are facing the effects from the Russian halt in electricity trade and the threat of a potential premature disconnection from BRELL, Ukraine’s energy networks are at the same time experiencing the direct aggression from Russia.
Yuliya Markuts, Head of the Center of Public Finance and Governance at the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), and Igor Piddubnyi, Analyst on Energy Sector Damages and Losses and Researcher at the Center for Food and Land Use Research at KSE, both gave insight into the tremendous damages to the Ukrainian energy system from Russian attacks, the short-term solutions to cope with the damage, as well as the long-term implications and reconstruction perspectives.
Since the invasion, about 50 percent of the energy infrastructure has been damaged by shelling. In addition, several power plants are under Russian control or located in Russian occupied territories. As of February 2023, nearly 16 GW of installed capacities of power plants remained in Russian control, equivalent of the peak demand. Apart from the damages to the producing side, transmission and distribution facilities have also been severely affected, as well as oil storage facilities. In April 2023, the damages to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure were estimated to amount to $8.3 billion, almost 6 percent of the total estimated direct damages from the war.
While the damages are massive, the population did not experience complete blackouts, and the Ukrainian energy system did not collapse. This is partly due to diesel-driven generators substituting much of the damaged electricity generation and partly due to a fall in demand of about 30-35 percent in 2022, mainly driven by decreased industry demand.
In the short term, Ukraine is likely to continue to face Russian attacks. Its top energy priorities would thus be to restore damaged facilities and infrastructure like heating and clean water, increase the stocks of fuel, gas, and coal, and to try to liberate occupied areas and facilities. Another vital aspect of the Ukrainian energy infrastructure and its resilience towards the Russian goal of “freezing” the country relates to energy efficiency. Ukraine’s energy efficiency has been relatively low, with the highest rate of electricity losses in Europe, and the numbers are also high for gas supply and district heating. Here, minor changes such as light bulb switching, can have great impacts. Additionally, solar panels – especially those that can also store energy – can help alleviate the acute pressure on the transmission grid. Other vital measures involve continued donations from Ukraine’s partners, sustained efforts from energy workers – at the risk of their lives – and persistent successful deterrence of cyber-attacks currently targeting the country.
Achieving a greener energy system is currently challenging (if not nearly impossible) due to the use of diesel-driven generators, the attacks on the energy system, and the fight for control over nuclear power plants such as Zaporizhzhia, which since March 2022 is under the control of Russian forces. Damages to renewable energy production further exacerbate these difficulties.
Thus, it is crucial to ensure that the planning and reconstruction of Ukraine’s energy sector is done in accordance with the European Green Deal. By 2030, the country should have at least 25 percent renewables in its energy mix, which would require substantial installations of at least 13 GW of wind, solar, small hydro and biogas capacities. In addition, transition entails decommissioning old coal power plants to run on natural or biogas instead of coal.
While this is a tall task, investments targeted to the energy system are not only essential for Ukraine’s population to sustain through the 2023/2024 winter – but also to facilitate the green transition in Europe. The potential for export of biomethane, green hydrogen, and nuclear power from Ukraine to Europe is considerable. As Europe’s biofuel demand is expected to increase by 63 percent while Ukrainian grain exports are still proving to be challenging, biofuel production for export on the European market is a particularly likely future scenario for the Ukrainian energy market.
In summary; the Ukrainian energy sector has done remarkably well, considering the impact of the damages from the Russian aggression. As Ukrainian short-term energy priorities lie in facilitating quick and efficient responses to infrastructural damages, current measures may not be particularly environmentally friendly. However, the longer-term reconstruction of Ukraine’s energy sector has great potential for being in line with the green transition objectives.
Energy System’s Resilience in the Green Transition
Mikael Toll, Senior Advisor at Ramboll Management Consulting highlighted the importance of infrastructure resilience. He emphasized the significance of the Energy Trilemma in achieving a successful transition to greener energy systems. This trilemma implies balancing between energy security, environmental sustainability, and affordability, all representing societal goals. Focusing on the energy security aspect of this trilemma, he stressed that energy infrastructure should be part of a more holistic approach to the problem. It is essential to establish resilient supply chains and implement efficient management procedures to prevent and mitigate the negative consequences of disruptions. It entails ensuring the performant infrastructure and supply, but also fostering well-functioning markets, putting in place state-governed crisis management mechanisms, and cooperation with other states. By combining these elements, one can enhance preparedness both in normal times and during crises.
Sweden as an Example
Sweden has since long been increasing its share of renewables in the energy mix, as depicted in Figure 2. This suggests that it is relatively well-prepared to the needs of the green transition. However, electricity demand is expected to increase by 100 percent in the coming years, driven by increased electrification of the industry and transport sectors, adding pressure to Sweden’s electricity system. The need for more investments in several energy systems is tangible, and investment opportunities are numerous. However, political decisions concerning the energy system in Sweden tend to be short-sighted, even though energy infrastructures have a long lifespan – often well over 50 years. As a result, investment risks are often high and change character over time, which creates a lack of infrastructure investment. Other challenges to Sweden’s energy resilience include limited acceptance of new energy infrastructure among the public, time-consuming approval processes, and a lack of thorough impact assessment.
Figure 2. Total supplied energy in Sweden, 1970-2020.
Further, the current geopolitical context creates an increased need to consider external threats – such as energy system disruptions resulting from the Russian war on Ukraine – and increased dependency on China as a key supplier of metals and batteries required for electrification. It is also important to realize that external influence may affect not only physical infrastructure but also domestic decision-making processes. This calls for more energy and political security alongside the green transition, in combination with higher readiness against security threats and a reassessment of global value chains.
In summary; to successfully move into a greener future, it is necessary to invest in energy systems and infrastructure based on a careful multi-dimensional analysis and with the support of long-sighted political decisions. At the same time, we must push investments that also consider the security threats from and dependencies on global actors.
This year’s Energy Talk provided an opportunity to hear from leading experts on the current situation of Europe’s energy resilience. It outlined the key challenges of the green transition in the current geopolitical and economic context. Greener solutions for Europe’s energy system will require tremendous physical efforts and investments but also political will and public understanding. There are, however, immense benefits to be realized if the associated risks are not overlooked.
On behalf of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics, we would like to thank Ewa Lazarczyk, Yuliya Markuts, Igor Piddubnyi and Mikael Toll for participating in this year’s Energy Talk. The presentations from the webinar can be seen here.
- Swedish Energy Agency. (2022). Energy in Sweden 2022 – an overview. https://energimyndigheten.a-w2m.se/Home.mvc?ResourceId=208766
- Lazarczyk, E. and Le Coq, C. (2023). Power coming from Russia and Baltic Sea Region’s energy security. REPORT 2023:940. Energiforsk.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Although much smaller than Russian exports of other energy commodities, Russian electricity exports to Europe have been a part of the European electricity systems. There are several connection points between the Russian and EU markets, but the Baltic States are the most exposed to Russian influence in the electricity sector. This brief discusses the Baltics’ dependency on Russian electricity, which currently accounts for 10 percent of the total Baltic electricity consumption. We argue that, while the Baltic states have some resilience (partly due to their connection to the Nordic countries), they are not immune to a complete halt to the Russian electricity trade, at least not in the short run.
The continuing military conflict in Ukraine and cut-offs of Russian gas to Europe are driving energy prices to unprecedented levels and creating concern about energy security all over Europe. The reliance on the Russian gas supply and the consequences of this has been profoundly discussed (for an overview, see e.g., Le Coq and Paltseva, 2022). At the same time, the topic of Russian electricity delivered to the EU has been largely left out of the current conversation.
Russia is exporting electricity directly to Europe, although at a much smaller scale than it has been exporting other energy commodities. There are several transmission connection points between the Russian and EU markets, but the situation of the Baltic States is the most precarious. They consume Russian electricity (about 10 percent of their needs) and their grids are still synchronised with Russia and Belarus. Therefore, they are exposed to some supply disruption and a desynchronization threat from Russia, potentially resulting in high market prices, severe congestion and even blackouts. Because the Baltics are connected to the leading power market in Europe, Nord Pool, any unexpected shocks may have consequences beyond the Baltic region.
Understanding how the Baltic States depend on Russia for their power consumption is an important element of the European energy security debate. This brief discusses the severity of the Baltics’ reliance on Russian electricity. We initially discuss the effect of a sudden halt to the Russian electricity trade in May 2022. We then address the potential consequences of the abrupt exclusion from the Russia-controlled transmission network. Finally, we discuss the future energy mix thought to replace Russian electricity in the Baltics.
The Baltic States’ Exposure to Indirect Imports of Russian Electricity
The Baltics’ exposure is analysed by examining the impact of a sudden stop of imports of Russian electricity to the EU in May 2022, which affected Nord Pool (https://www.nordpoolgroup.com/en/) prices as well as congestion in the Baltic States. This event cannot be qualified as an external shock, required for a rigorous empirical analysis. Nonetheless, it helps us assess the Baltics’ exposure.
On May 15th 2022, Russia broke off its electricity trade with Finland. This event is relevant to consider as Finland is increasingly a primary import source for the Baltic States. Any electricity supply disruption affecting Finland may therefore impact the Baltics’ energy system balance. To assess how the event impacted the Baltic electricity market, we compare the congestion occurrences in 2021 and 2022.
A standard way to assess the misfunctioning of a power market is to look at congestion episodes. The Nord Pool market, to which the Baltic states are connected, has several bidding areas. Prices between zones may differ in case of transmission bottlenecks. When transmission lines are saturated, no more electricity can, in that period, be transported from the cheap to the expensive areas to alleviate prices, referred to as congestion.
In the graphs below, we illustrate the congestion in the Baltics in 2021 as compared to 2022. Looking at the 2021 data for Estonia and Latvia, the countries belonged to the same price area most of the year; some price differences were observed in the summer months, but only 10 percent of the hours within those months were congested. In 2022 the price differences between the two countries grew substantially, since May reaching 20 percent, with more congested hours (Figure 1). In 2022 price differences also increased between Lithuania and Southern Sweden (region SE 4) as depicted in Figure 2.
Figure 1. Congestion between Estonia and Latvia (as percentage of congested hours out of all hours within a given month).
Figure 2. Congestion between Lithuania and Sweden (SE4) (as percentage of congested hours out of all hours within a given month).
Our aim is not to show a causal effect of the withdrawal of Russia from commercial electricity trading with the Baltic States region, but to describe some general, coincidental trends in congestion. Note that the congestion might be a result of the extreme prices observed in the Baltics – on August 17th 2022, prices reached the Nord Pool cap of 4000€/MW, the highest ever level in the region (Lazarczyk Carlson and Le Coq, 2022a).
To conclude, halting the electricity trade between Russia and Finland appears to have had some impact on the congestion in the Baltic States. Still, the consequences were not severe as the Baltics were already curtailing commercial exchanges with Russia and Belarus. Additionally, the Finnish yearly imports from Russia constituted at most 10 percent of the annual Finnish consumption.
The Baltic States’ Exposure to a Desynchronization Threat
The Baltics belong to the Moscow-controlled synchronous electrical power grid, BRELL, which connects power systems of Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This grid dependency makes it virtually impossible for the Baltic States to completely stop Russian and Belarussian power from floating into the Baltics´ territory. A desynchronization from the BRELL network is currently not feasible. Although the Baltics have invested heavily in grid extensions and upgrade, the connection to the European grid is scheduled only for 2024/2025. Therefore, even though the Baltic States have been limiting commercial trading with Russia and Belarus on the Nordic electricity market, they are still receiving Russian/Belarusian electricity.
The Baltics’ dependency on the BRELL network creates a potential threat to the Baltic electricity supply security in case Russia should decide to weaponize its electricity supply further and disconnect the Baltic States from the network ahead of the planned exit in 2024/2025 (Lazarczyk Carlson and Le Coq, 2022a). Such premature disconnection could result in severe blackouts, and immediate reactions would be required to keep the system operational. In such scenario, strong support from the Nordic countries via Finland and/or Sweden would be needed. It is however important to keep in mind that a sudden disconnection from BRELL also could harm Kaliningrad – the Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Although Russia has invested heavily in expanding Kaliningrad generation capacities and its energy self-sufficiency, it is not clear whether the region is to this day prepared to operate in island mode without the support of the BRELL and neighbouring countries. Up to date, three successful operating exercises in island mode have been conducted in Kaliningrad, the longest lasting for 72 hours. However, the two tests scheduled for 2022 have been cancelled.
The future re-initialization of electricity trading with Russia is uncertain at this point and the role of Russian electricity has diminished over the years. The Baltics are not planning to maintain any transmission connection with Russia and Belarus after synchronising with the European power grid. However, the Finnish standpoint needs to be clarified. If the Finnish-Russian electrical power trade exchange is re-established in the future, Russian electricity might once again flow into the Baltics´ transmission grid as imports from Finland are forecasted to increase in the coming years due to a third interconnector, which should become operational in 2035.
The Baltics’ (Future) Energy Mix Without Russian Electricity
The alternatives to Russian electricity depend on the Baltics’ energy mix and transmission system. In 2021 the demand for electric power in the Baltics was 27 TWh, with Latvia representing 26 percent, Estonia 30 percent, and Lithuania 44 percent of the total demand. Consumption is forecasted to grow by 60-65 percent by 2050, due to the electrification of the economy and increasing needs within industries, housing, transportation, etc. (Nordic Energy Research, 2022).
All Baltic States are today net importers of electricity. The main import sources are Finland and, to a lesser extent, Sweden, which have jointly exported 45 TWh of electric power to the region over the years 2016-2021. Finland is itself a net importer of electricity mainly importing power from Sweden. Until May 2022, Finland’s second import source was Russia.
The Baltics are heavily dependent on fossil fuels in their electricity mix as illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1. Energy mix for electricity production (MW) in the Baltics, 2022.
The region is now trying to limit the use of fossil-fuel energy and expand its green energy potential, as extensively discussed in Lazarczyk Carlson E. and Le Coq C. (2022b). The actual installed capacity for the onshore wind is however insufficient, with 326 MW in Estonia, 87 MW in Latvia, and 671 MW in Lithuania. The current offshore wind’s capacity is non-existent. There are some plans to develop 4.5 GW in Lithuania, 7 GW in Estonia, and 14.5 GW in Latvia by 2050, but this will require substantial investments (European Commission, 2019).
The region also plans to expand solar power production, especially in Latvia and Lithuania, where the current capacity is 14 and 259 MW respectively. There are also plans to expand Latvian hydro production for storage and balancing needs; currently, Latvia has 1588 MW of installed run-of-the-river hydro capacity, the highest among the Baltic States.
Investing in nuclear power is another possibility which is currently being considered. As part of the EU accession process, Lithuania shut down its Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, the first unit in 2004 and the second in 2009, turning the country from a net exporter into a net importer of electric power (IEA, 2021). A project of replacing the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) by a new Polish-Lithuanian Plant, the Visaginas NPP, was discussed but later abandoned. The Estonian company Fermi Energy, in collaboration with the Swedish firm Vattenfall, are currently looking into small modular reactor (SMR) technology to develop nuclear energy. This project is however in the initial phases of development.
Renewables and nuclear power are credible alternatives to limit fossil-fuel energy usage and dependency on Russian electricity. The alternatives might however not be easily implemented in the short run.
The Baltic States’ dependency on the Russian electricity supply is limited. Nevertheless, discontinuing Russian electricity deliveries is not innocuous for at least two reasons.
First, the Baltics are still part of the BRELL network, so they are still physically dependent on Russia, although they plan to desynchronize from this network in the longer run. However, a sudden desynchronization initiated by Russia may have severe consequences in the short run (e.g. blackouts).
Second, considering the forecasted future increase in the demand for electrical power in the Baltics and the Nordic countries, the Baltics will remain dependent on power imports. Today, the Baltics rely on Finland and Sweden, as all three Baltic States are net electricity importers. To limit any future dependence on Russian/Belarussian electricity, the Baltics plan to sever any transmission connections with Russia and Belarus after desynchronization, thus cutting the potential for future electricity trade with both countries. If, however, the Nordic countries re-establish commercial exchanges with Russia via Finland, it is nevertheless possible that Russian electricity will be flowing in the Baltics transmission system again.
This policy brief is based on a project funded by the Energiforsk research program.
- Benedettini, S. and Stagnaro, C. (2022), Europe’s decoupling of electricity and gas prices: the crisis is temporary, so why do it? https://energypost.eu/europes-decoupling-of-electricity-and-gas-prices-the-crisis-is-temporary-so-should-it-be-done-at-all/
- ENTSO-E Transparency platform. Accessed on the 25th of November 2022 from https://www.entsoe.eu/
- European Comission. (2019). Study on Baltic offshore wind energy cooperation under BEMIP. Final report. ENER/C1/2018-456. June 2019. Accessed on the 12th of November 2022. https://op.europa.eu/lt/publication-detail/-/publication/9590cdee-cd30-11e9-992f-01aa75ed71a1
- IEA. (2021). Lithuania 2021 Energy Policy Review. Accessed on the 12th of November 2022 from https://www.iea.org/reports/lithuania-2021
- Juozaitis J. (2021). The Synchronisation of the Baltic States; Geopolitical Implications on the Baltic Sea Region and Beyond. Energy Highlights. NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence.
- Le Coq, C. and Paltseva, E. (2022). What does the Gas Crisis Reveal About European Energy Security? FREE Policy Brief, https://freepolicybriefs.org/2022/01/24/gas-crisis-european-energy/
- Lazarczyk Carlson, E. and Le Coq, C. (2022a). The weaponization of electricity: the case of electricity trade between Russia and European Union, IAEE Energy Forum, Fourth Quarter 2022.
- Lazarczyk Carlson, E. and Le Coq, C. (2022b). Power coming for Russia and Baltic Sea region’s energy security, Energiforsk report.
- Nordic Energy Research. (2022). Baltic-Nordic Roadmap for Co-operation on Clean Energy Technologies. Accessed on the 12th of November 2022 from https://www.nordicenergy.org/publications/baltic-nordic-roadmap-for-co-operation-on-clean-energy-technologies/
- Nord Pool. Accessed on the 28th of November from https://www.nordpoolgroup.com/en/
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
This brief summarizes the growth experience of transition countries 25 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We divide our sample into two main groups: the 10 transition countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that became EU members in 2004 and 2007 (EU10); and the 12 countries (ex Baltics) that emerge from the Soviet Union (FSU12). The growth experiences of these two groups have been distinctly different. The magnitude of the initial transition decline in output was much more severe in the FSU12 group. Despite growing almost 2 percentage points faster than the average EU10 for the following fifteen years, the FSU12 group is still further behind the EU10 group than they were at the beginning of transition. This illustrates how hard it is for countries to recover from large negative income shocks and thus the importance for countries to avoid such negative events. However, there are no signs of transition countries being stuck in a low or middle-income trap or that natural resource wealth leads to lower growth during this period.
2017 marked the 25-years anniversary after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the transition for the economies in the region. In a recent paper, we explore the growth experience of transition countries over these 25 years (Becker and Olofsgård, 2017). The paper has four main parts: an overview of the transition literature focusing on growth; a part that provides a detailed description of growth in transition; an analytical section that investigate if we can explain growth in transition countries with a standard growth model; and finally an exploration of whether institutional and other variables that have been highlighted in the transition literature (but are excluded from the basic growth model) are correlated with growth in transition countries. This brief summarizes the descriptive part of the paper, while the more analytical sections will be the topic of future briefs.
For most of the paper, we divide our sample into two main groups; the 10 transition countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that became EU members in 2004 and 2007 (EU10); and the 12 countries that emerged from the Soviet Union (FSU12). In addition, we include three transition countries that are not part of either group (Croatia, Albania and Macedonia – Other3) and we also divide the FSU12 group into the four countries that export significant amounts of fuel (FSUF) and the eight countries that do not (FSUNF). There are of course remaining differences within these groups, but this aggregate analysis allows us to see certain patterns in the transition process more clearly.
Initial output collapses
The focus in economics is often on how to generate higher growth and not about protecting against significant drops in output. There are some exceptions, including Becker and Mauro (2006) and Cerra and Saxena (2007), where the focus is on output losses and how countries recover after crises. For transition countries, a very important feature of the economic development process is exactly the initial drop in income and the time it has taken countries to recover from the initial phase of transition. Table 1 shows how much income fell in the different country groups and the time it took to get back to the pre-transition income level.
Table 1. Output drops and recoveries
The initial collapse in the FSU12 group was enormous, with income cut in half. The EU10 countries also had massive output losses, but “only” lost a quarter of their income on average. This took over a decade to recover from, while the path back to pre-transition income levels in the average FSU12 country was almost twice as long. There have been many papers written on the economic chaos that was part of the initial transition process, and explanations for this decline has been attributed to, e.g., misleading data, lack of functioning markets, shock therapy and poor economic and legal institutions in general. All of these factors have likely played important roles in the process, but regardless of the explanation, this was a very unfavorable time in terms of economic outcomes for hundreds of millions of people in these countries. Avoiding such costly drops in output should be a top priority for economic policy makers in any country at all times, not just in transition.
From collapse to growth
In most transition countries, the initial phase of decline in transition lasted several years, but eventually the negative growth rates turned positive (Figure 1). Again, we can see that the EU10 group had fewer years of declining incomes with growth resuming in 1993, while for the FSU12 group, growth in transition only started in 1996/7.
Figure 1. Bust-Boom countries
What is less visible in Figure 1 due to the wide scale needed to capture the initial output drops is that the FSU12 groups has shown significantly higher growth than the EU10 group in the last 15 years. Over the more recent period, the average FSU12 country has grown by close to 6 percent, while growth for the EU10 has been around 4 percent per annum (Table 2).
Table 2. Real GDP/cap growth
The faster growth in FSU12 countries is particularly pronounced among the fuel exporters, which were growing by one and a half percentage point faster than the non-fuel exporters between 2000 and 2015. But the table also shows that the very negative growth experience during the first ten years of transition is hard to erase and the EU10 countries have grown faster over the full 25-year period compared to the FSU12 countries. In terms of understanding the growth experience of the different country groups and time periods, it is clear that the sharp increase in international oil prices during the last 15 years of the period generated high growth in the fuel exporting countries in the FSU12 group. Interestingly though, also the non-fuel exporters grew faster than the EU10 in this time period. This is likely linked to spillovers from Russia to the other countries in the region, but could also be related to some recovering after the massive initial declines in output. Such macro and external factors are not always stressed in discussions of growth in transition countries, which more often focus on the pace of reforms or strength of institutions, but seem to be relevant at this aggregate level when comparing the initial and later phases of transition.
Relative incomes in transition countries
Growth or the lack thereof is of importance in determining income levels, which is what we generally think is what influences welfare. The question is then what the growth processes we have analyzed imply for income levels in transition countries, and in particular, how the income levels in these countries compare with other countries.
Figure 2. Income relative to 15 old EU countries
The short story here is that the relative ranking of the different groups is largely unchanged from the start of transition until the end of 2015. The group of countries that eventually joined the EU has the highest income level while the non-fuel exporting FSU countries have the lowest. However, the leading group still only has around 60 percent of the income of the average “old” EU country while the average FSU12 country has half of that or around 30 percent of the income of the old EU countries. This puts the relatively high growth rates of the FSU12 group over the last 15 years in perspective; the road to reach old EU level incomes is long indeed. Also, within the FSU group, it is clear that there is a sharp dividing line between the fuel exporters and the rest. This is in stark contrast to the notion of a “natural resource curse” that is often blamed for poor growth in oil and mineral rich countries.
Growth traps in transition?
One issue that comes up with regards to both low and middle-income countries is if they are stuck at a certain level in the relative income rankings of the world. This is referred to as the low or middle-income trap and the question is if there are signs of transition countries being stuck in such traps.
Figure 3. Moving up the income ladder
Figure 3 shows how transition countries are classified into the World Banks income groups low income (1 in the Figures scale), lower middle income (2), higher middle income (3) and high income (4) groups.
It is clear that the FUS 12 group of countries was sliding down the scale initially, but since the beginning of the 2000’s, all of the transition countries have been climbing up the World Bank income ranking scale without any apparent signs of a low or middle-income trap.
There are of course country differences along all the dimensions discussed in this brief but grouping the transition countries together provides some interesting general observations of growth in transition. First of all, it is clear that it is very hard to fully recover from large drops in income. Even with the help of some extra growth following a crisis, it seems to take a long time for most countries to make up for lost ground. This suggests that policy makers in transition as well as other countries need to take measures to hedge the really bad outcomes and not only focus on how to generate an extra one percent of growth.
The other observation is that at the aggregate level, external factors and more mechanical macro boom-bust-boom type of growth factors may dominate what we generally think of as the long-run determinants of growth (such as institutions, education, and micro level reforms to make markets work better) over very long time spans. This does not mean that the focus on the more fundamental growth drivers should diminish, but it is important that reforms in these areas are complemented with a macroeconomic framework that reduces the risks of costly output collapses.
Finally, it is clear that the incomes generated by natural resources can produce growth at the macro level and that there is little evidence that transition countries should be stuck at any particular level in the global income rankings. Go transition countries!
- Becker, T, and A. Olofsgård (2017), “From abnormal to normal—Two tales of growth from 25 years of transition”, SITE Working paper 43, September.
- Becker, T., and P. Mauro, (2006). “Output Drops and the Shocks That Matter”. IMF Working Papers 06/172.
- Cerra, V., and S.C. Saxena (2008). ”Growth Dynamics: The Myth of Economic Recovery”. American Economic Review, 98(1), 439–457.
We analyze the role of the new goods margin—those goods that initially account for very small volumes of trade—in the Baltic states’ trade growth during the 1995-2008 period. We find that, on average, the basket of goods that in 1995 accounted for 10% of total Baltic exports and imports to their main trade partners, represented nearly 50% and 25% of total exports and imports in 2008, respectively. Moreover, we find that the share of Baltic new-goods exports outpaced that of other transition economies of Central and Eastern Europe. As the International Trade literature has recently shown, these increases in newly-traded goods could in turn have significant implications in terms of welfare and productivity gains within the Baltic economies.
New EU members, new trade opportunities
The Eastern enlargements of the European Union (EU) that have taken place since 2004 included the liberalization of trade as one of their main pillars and consequently provided new opportunities for the expansion of trade among the new and old members. Growth in trade following trade liberalization episodes such as the ones contemplated in the recent EU expansions could occur because of two reasons. First, because countries export and import more of the goods that they had already been trading. Alternatively, trade liberalization could promote the exchange of goods that had previously not been traded. The latter alternative is usually referred to as increases in the extensive margin of trade, or the new goods margin.
The new goods margin has been receiving a considerable amount of attention in the International Trade literature. For example, Broda and Weinstein (2006) estimate the value to American consumers derived from the growth in the variety of import products between 1972 and 2001 to be as large as 2.6% of GDP, while Chen and Hong (2012) find a figure of 4.9% of GDP for the Chinese case between 1997 and 2008. Similarly, Feenstra and Kee (2008) find that, in a sample of 44 countries, the total increase in export variety is associated with an average 3.3% productivity gain per year for exporters over the 1980–2000 period. This suggests that the new goods margin has significant implications in terms of both welfare and productivity.
In a forthcoming article (Cho and Díaz, in press) we study the patterns of the new goods margin for the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We investigate whether the period of rapid trade expansion experienced by these countries after gaining independence in 1991—average exports grew by more than 700% between 1995 and 2008 in nominal terms, and average imports by more than 800%—also coincided with increases in newly-traded goods by quantifying the relative importance of the new goods margin between 1995 and 2008. This policy brief summarizes our results.
Why focus on the Baltics?
The Baltic economies present an interesting case for a series of reasons. First, along a number of dimensions, the Baltic countries stood out as leaders among the formerly centrally-planned economies in implementing market- and trade-liberalization reforms. Indeed, those are the kind of structural changes that Kehoe and Ruhl (2013) identify as the main drivers of extensive margin increases. Second, unlike other transition economies, as part of the Soviet Union the Baltics lacked any degree of autonomy. Thus, upon independence, they faced a vast array of challenges, among them the difficult task of establishing trade relationships with the rest of the world, which prior to 1991 were determined solely from Moscow. Lastly, as former Soviet republics, the Baltic states had sizable portions of ethnic Russian-speaking population, most of which remained in the Baltics even after their independence. At least in principle, this gave the Baltic economies a unique potential to better tap into the Russian market.
Defining “new goods”
We use bilateral merchandise trade data for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania starting in 1995 and ending in 2008, the year before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The data are taken from the World Bank’s World Integrated Trade Solution database. The trade data are disaggregated at the 5-digit level of the SITC Revision 2 code, which implies that our analysis deals with 1,836 different goods.
To construct a measure of the new goods margin, we follow the methodology laid out in Kehoe and Ruhl (2013). First, for each good we compute the average export and import value during the first three years in the sample (in our case, 1995 to 1997), to avoid any distortions that could arise from our choice of the initial year. Next, goods are sorted in ascending order according to the three-year average. Finally, the cumulative value of the ranked goods is grouped into 10 brackets, each containing 10% of total trade. The basket of goods in the bottom decile is labeled as the “new” goods or “least-traded” goods, since it contains goods that initially recorded zero trade, as well as goods that were traded in positive—but low—volumes. We then trace the evolution of the trade value of the goods in the bottom decile, which represents the growth of trade in least-traded goods.
For ease of exposition, we present the results for the average Baltic exports and imports of least-traded goods, rather than the trade flows for each country. Results for each individual country can be found in Cho and Díaz (in press). We report the least-traded exports and imports to and from the Baltics’ main trade partners: the EU15, composed of the 15-country bloc that constituted the EU prior to the 2004 expansion; Germany, which within the EU15 stands out as the main trade partner of Latvia and Lithuania; the “Nordics”, a group that combines Finland and Sweden, Estonia’s largest trade partners; and Russia, because of its historical ties with the Baltic states and its relative importance in their total trade.
Figure 1 shows the evolution over time of the share in total exports of the goods that were initially labeled as “new goods”, i.e., those products that accounted for 10% of total trade in 1995. We find that the Baltic states were able to increase their least-traded exports significantly, and by 2008 such exports accounted for nearly 40% of total exports to the EU15, and close to 53%, 49% and 49% of total exports to Germany, the Nordic countries, and Russia, respectively. Moreover, we find that the fastest growth in least-traded exports to the EU15 and its individual members coincided with the periods when the Association Agreements and accession to the EU took place. Finally, we discover that the rapid increase in least-traded exports to the EU15 during the late 1990s and early 2000s is accompanied by a stagnation of least-traded exports to Russia. This suggest that, as the Baltics received preferential treatment from the EU, they expanded their export variety mix in that market at the expense of the Russian. Growth in least-traded exports to Russia only resumed in the mid 2000s, when the Baltics became EU members and were granted the same preferential treatment in the Russian market that the other EU members enjoyed.
Figure 1. Baltic least-traded exports
Figure 2 plots the evolution of Baltic least-traded imports between 1995 and 2008. We find that new goods imports also grew at robust rates, but their growth is about half the magnitude of the growth in the least-traded exports—the least-traded imports nearly doubled their share, whereas the least-traded exports quadrupled it. The least-traded imports from the EU15 and its individual members exhibited consistent growth throughout. On the other hand, imports of new goods from Russia—which had also been growing since 1995—started a continuous decline starting in 2003. This change in patterns can be attributed to the Baltics joining the EU customs union. Prior to their EU accession, the average Baltic tariff was in general low. Upon EU accession, the Baltics adopted the EU’s Commercial Common Policy, which removed trade restrictions for EU goods flowing into the Baltics, but—from the perspective of the Baltic countries—raised tariffs on non-EU imports, in turn discouraging the imports of Russian new goods.
Figure 2. Baltic least-traded imports
Are the Baltics different?
Figure 1 shows that the Baltic states were able to increase their least-traded exports by a significant margin. A natural question follows: Is this a feature that is unique of the Baltic economies, or is it instead a generalized trend among the transition countries?
Table 1: Growth of the share of least-traded exports (percent, annual average)
Table 1 reveals that the new goods margin played a much larger role for the Baltic states than for other transition economies such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (which we label as “Non-Baltics”), for all the export destinations we consider. Moreover, we find that while until 2004—the year of the EU accession—both Baltic and Non-Baltic countries displayed high and comparable growth rates of least-traded exports, this trend changed after 2004. Indeed, while there is no noticeable slowdown in the Baltic growth rate, after 2004 the Non-Baltic growth of least-traded exports to the world and to the EU15 all but stops, with the only exception being the Nordic destinations.
The Baltic states, and in particular Estonia, are usually portrayed as exemplary models of trade liberalization among the transition economies. Our results indicate that the Baltics substantially increased both their imports and exports of least-traded goods between 1995 and 2008. Since increases in the import variety mix have been shown to entail non-negligible welfare effects, we expect large welfare gains for the Baltic consumers experienced due to the increases in the imports of previously least-traded goods. Moreover, the literature has documented that increases in export variety are associated with increases in labor productivity. Our findings reveal that the Baltics’ increases in their exports of least-traded goods were even larger than their imports of new goods, thus underscoring the importance of the new goods margin because of their contribution to labor productivity gains.
- Broda, Christian; and David E. Weinstein, 2006. “Globalization and the gains from variety,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 121 (2), pp. 541–585.
- Chen, Bo; and Ma Hong, 2012. “Import variety and welfare gain in China,” Review of International Economics, Vol. 20 (4), pp. 807–820.
- Cho, Sang-Wook (Stanley); and Julián P. Díaz. “The new goods margin in new markets,” Journal of Comparative Economics, in press.
- Feenstra, Robert C.; and Hiau Looi Kee, 2008. “Export variety and country productivity: estimating the monopolistic competition model with endogenous productivity,” Journal of International Economics, Vol. 74 (2), pp. 500–518.
- Kehoe, Timothy J.; and Kim J. Ruhl, 2013. “How important is the new goods margin in international trade?” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 121 (2), pp. 358–392.