Friday, 21 August 2015

Russian fears after 20 years

Since the fall of communism, Russia has become again a case study on the loss of freedom in non-capitalist systems, this time the result of a system of oligarchic state capitalism developed in the country.

I am not an expert on Russia, a country I visited only twice and briefly. I visited Moscow in 1991 and S. Petersburg in 2013. The last time, during the visit to the over-crowded Hermitage Museum I seated for a while wondering what had struck me more and it was not the museum.

Mostly, I wondered why after more than 20 years this beautiful imperial city still looked dilapidated and decrepit, and people in the streets and tourist shops still looked fearful, nationalistic and resentful of westerns. It also struck me how limited was the offer of products beyond the babushkas, amber and other semi-precious stones and communist memorabilia.

Having lived my youth under Salazar’s authoritarian regime, a model admired by President Putin, I can understand the Russians’ fear, longing and delusions about past imperial might and equality in poverty. It also lets me sense the body language of those living in fear of the authorities or in servility before those in authority to whom they owe their business.

For instance, a souvenir shop I visited still exhibited a wall plaque stating that it had been opened by special permission of a minister. I also had lunch in a restaurant housed in a former Czar palace and headquarters of the Soviet Trade Unions. It housed many other “companies” which did not have any identification and nobody knew what they did or who owned the place. The meal itself was not much different from what one gets in a workers canteen and the service was very poor. However it have the “luxury” of classical live music played by a young violinist. The whole setting was quite surreal.

Only a lack of truly free enterprise can explain the absence of progress in Russia. In fact, the Russian economy continues totally dependent on the exports of arms and energy, with the later accounting for almost 70% of its exports and, together with other commodities, account for about 50% of the Federal Government tax revenue. Overall, Russian exports are less than 15% of the Euro-Area exports.

Searching for explanations for Russia’s poor performance, Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats (2013) compares the rent-seeking strategies of the Russian oligarchs with that of the Chinese Communist Party bosses and concluded that “China’s market reforms have been slower and its avenues for rent-seeking have been more varied and more opaque than a quick privatization drive led from the top”. In my view, this does not explain much about the disparate performances of Russia and China.

The key difference resides in the openness and participation of the two countries in international trade. While China began by creating special free trade regions for foreign investors and sought an early entry into the WTO organization, Russia only fulfilled the WTO membership requirements in 2012.

Equally important was the contempt for small business inherited from the communist regime which, coupled with a lack of property protection, rampant corruption and business fear, discouraged free enterprise and entrepreneurship.

The Russian experience confirms the importance of freedom for capitalism and economic development. Otherwise the incumbents fear the loss of power and people the loss of security and sooner or later turn to authoritarian nationalism invoking the risk of social unrest or imaginary external threats.

These fears can only be overcome through genuine democracy and a move towards market capitalism, by opening up to foreign competition and achieving significant progress in complying with the six principles of market capitalism.

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