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Friday, October 05, 2007

Bovt: The More Things Change in Russia, the More they Stay the Same

Writing in the Moscow Times, Georgy Bovt explains how little Russia's mindset has changed since Soviet times:

Russia's political elite has failed to develop a new, modern style for governing. When observing, for example, how our leaders speak with the public and make decisions, it reminds me so much of the Soviet way of doing things.

For example, nomenclatural arrogance is alive and well. Russian leaders still sees themselves as standing far above the people. Even if they wade into a crowd to have a "casual chat" with the people, it often takes the form of gods descending from the heavens to speak with simple mortals. And even if they graciously ask one of the mortals about his life, his household and how much he is earning, he still comes across as an alien who has landed on an unfamiliar planet.

When Russian leaders goes out to meet the people, they are almost constantly issuing instructions and commands that their servile assistants jot down on their notepads. Incidentally, the habit of needlessly recording a leader's words on notepads is also a holdover from Soviet times. I remember how nearly every one of the thousands of delegates who gathered for huge Communist Party congresses diligently recorded a summary of the leaders' speeches on little notepads -- even though the scripts of the speeches, which were published the next day in many newspapers, were easily accessible.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov's visit to Penza last week received extensive media coverage, especially when he issued a series of direct orders that were all delivered with that style so characteristic of former Soviet leaders. For example, having learned suddenly from discussions with local workers that kindergarten teachers earn just 3,500 rubles ($140) per month, he ordered the governor of Penza to raise salaries immediately. Whether Zubkov would be able to order salary increases for all of the teachers outside of Penza was not addressed.

Zubkov also listened closely to the complaints of managers of a local paper factory that VTB, the large state-controlled bank, did not follow through on its promise to extend credit at 14 percent interest rate. This left the factory no other choice but to borrow from a Czech bank at 4.5 percent. Several days later in a Cabinet meeting, Zubkov decried this phenomenon as a "disgrace," and he issued an order to Russian banks to start providing "affordable credit" to Russian manufacturers.

The new prime minister particularly shines when -- with a stern and menacing voice -- he sends various Moscow officials out to the provinces to "figure out what is going on" and to solve all of the local problems.

Of course, all of this lacks common sense. Even a schoolchild knows that any bank issuing credit at 4.5 percent would not be sustainable without government subsidies, given this country's high inflation rate. Also, raising salaries for teachers in one region without addressing the salaries of all state employees is absurd. Equally absurd were the official orders to develop Russia's nanotechnology industry -- a sphere that is, by definition, requires innovation, which can blossom only when there are favorable economic conditions -- and freedom! Orders from bureaucrats for these types of development projects are not only meaningless, they are counterproductive. In a market economy, investment flows naturally into sectors where profits can be made and not where directed by bureaucratic decree.

Does the current leadership not understand that the Soviet approach was proven ineffective long ago?

We are now witnessing a mass reversion to the Soviet style of management and governing, and Zubkov's appointment as prime minister only strengthens this trend. It seems that the current election campaign will also be conducted in the best of Soviet traditions. President Vladimir Putin's decision to head the United Russia ticket confirms this. But we will ...

On the other hand, all of this will be amusing to watch. After all, we know that when history repeats itself, it does so in the form of a farce.

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