By Alexander Winning and Katya Golubkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's central bank cut its main lending rate on Friday for the first time in almost a year, signaling confidence that inflation risks are declining and describing an economic recovery as "imminent".
The rate cut comes as Russia's economy, plagued in the past few years by plunging oil prices and Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, is showing signs that the worst is behind it.
The bank cut the rate by a half-point to 10.5 percent, the first reduction since July 2015, a move predicted by a majority of analysts although some had expected no change.
After declining by 3.7 percent last year, the economy now looks set to begin growing again, helped by an unexpectedly strong rebound in global oil prices and a plunge in inflation that is helping to support living standards.
"After the rise in uncertainty and risks at the start of this year, the situation in the economy is normalizing," central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina said at a news conference after the decision.
"The dynamics of the economy and inflation are turning out better than we expected.
"We are sure that we will be able to reduce inflation to the target level even in the case that inflation risks are realized," she added, referring to the bank's goal of bringing inflation down to 4 percent by the end of 2017.
She cautioned that the rate cut should not necessarily be seen as the start of an easing cycle, saying the timing of any future cuts depended on the economic situation.
In a statement accompanying the rate decision, the bank said it "will consider the possibility of a further cut based on estimates for inflation risks and alignment of inflation decline with the forecast trajectory".
The rouble strengthened immediately after the decision, an unusual response as lower interest rates normally make a currency less attractive to hold.
But this factor appeared to be outweighed by the positive signals the central bank had sent about the health of Russia's economy more generally.
"The market has interpreted the decision of the central bank positively," said Sergey Romanchuk, head of forex and money markets at Metallinvestbank.
"The central bank is conservative and if even it has decided to lower rates in the current situation, it means its evaluation of the prospects for economic growth and lower inflation are quite reliable."
The rate cut and unusually bullish rhetoric from the central bank testify to the improvement in Russia's economic prospects over recent months as commodity prices rally and geopolitical tensions ease.
Brent crude, an international benchmark for Russia's main export, has recently hit eight-month highs above $50 per barrel, recovering more quickly than expected from a 13-year low of $27 per barrel in January.
Russia remains under Western sanctions, with little expectation they will be lifted in the coming months, but there are indications geopolitical tensions are diminishing.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and EU Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker will visit an economic summit in St Petersburg next week in a tentative sign European leaders may be keen to rebuild bridges to Russia.
In its statement, the central bank drew attention not only to declining inflation but also to favorable growth trends.
It predicted that quarterly gross domestic product would begin rising in the second half of 2016, with GDP expected to grow by 1.3 percent in 2017.
"Positive trends in the economy are not accompanied by a higher inflationary pressure," the bank said, adding that recent macroeconomic indicators "confirm greater sustainability of the Russian economy to oil price fluctuations".
There had been growing expectations the bank would cut rates as inflation has fallen sharply over the last year and remained stable at 7.3 percent for the last three months, a better-than-expected outcome.
Inflationary pressure has eased partly because of a rebound in the rouble, helped by the recovery in global oil prices.
The central bank cautioned that although they had declined, risks it would fail to meet its inflation target remained "at a heightened level".
It expressed concern about the lack of a mid-term budget consolidation strategy as well as uncertainty about wage and pension indexation, and the risk of further volatility on global commodity markets.
"The materialization of these risks might cause a slowdown in the inflation reduction," the central bank said, adding that a further rate cut would hinge on whether inflation continued to fall.
(Additional reporting by Jason Bush, Elena Fabrichnaya and Lidia Kelly; editing by Christian Lowe)