Back from the Former USSR

I’ve just returned from a fascinating week in Russia and Ukraine. I was in Moscow last week to deliver some lectures regarding my book on globalization, Against the Dead Hand, which was recently translated into Russian. From there I traveled down to Kiev to improve Cato’s contacts with liberal (in the everywhere-but-America sense of that word) organizations there. 

My overwhelming impression from the visit: what a difference an oil boom makes! Now in the fifteenth year since the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither Russia nor Ukraine has had much success in making the transition from communism to a viable market economy (according to the latest Economic Freedom of the World report, Ukraine ranks 103rd in the world, with Russia trailing just behind at 115th). Despite this and many other similarities, there is one critical difference between the two countries: Russia has oil and gas, and Ukraine doesn’t.

As a result, Moscow fairly reeks of money these days – luxury retail outlets everywhere, the roads choked with Mercedes sedans, non-stop construction projects. On a plane flight I met an American whose job seems to be schmoozing the new Russian nomenklatura on behalf of American investors. Boy, did he have some stories to tell – like one about a group of bigwigs who recently paid a big-name Hollywood actor a half-million bucks just to fly to Russia and hang out with them for a few days. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story (and therefore won’t give the actor’s name), the fact that it seemed entirely plausible tells you something about the amount of money sloshing around that town these days.

Kiev, meanwhile, is a charming, beautiful city – but poor. Just off Kreshchatik Street, the city’s main boulevard, are lovely old buildings in dismal, Soviet-era disrepair. And the only Western retail establishments I saw were McDonald’s, Reebok, and Benetton – not exactly catering to the glitterati.

For precisely this reason, I am much more optimistic about Ukraine’s propects for reform than I am about Russia’s. Seduced by all the easy money, Russia under Putin has decided for the time being that Jed Clampett beats Adam Smith as an economic role model. And with the abandonment of economic reform has come a nasty crackdown on political freedom. Ukraine, on the other hand, has no easy way out. And so, perhaps, its improving political climate (whatever one makes of the results of the recent parliamentary elections, at least they were free and fair) will create the space within which durable economic improvements can eventually be achieved.