Pickering Prophesies a Miracle for Russia

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering had some parting words for the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow on Monday -- words that were either bold, optimistic, rash or just plain crazy depending on your view of Russia's future development.

Pickering, who will retire from the foreign service next month, told his audience of U.S. businessmen active in Moscow that Russia has changed so much during his tenure, he is willing to make a few predictions for the record.

"Within three years, Americans will be able to travel to Sochi and Samara as easily and as regularly as they now travel to Chicago and Cleveland," he said -- a true test of faith for any regular Aeroflot traveler.

Moreover, "when they travel there, they will be able to stay at more-than-three-star hotels, eat at McDonald's and better, rent American cars, and call home without all of the traditional difficulties."

Tax accountants might have found the ambassador's prediction that Russian tax laws and accounting standards would approach Western norms within the next three years an equal stretch. Nor would customs problems any longer be the overwhelming headache they are now.

Changes in commercial regulations and the legal system would mean that "doing business in Russia will become more structured, more predictable and less risky."

In fact, Russia will become one of America's top trading partners -- worldwide.

Arguing that he was not just talking science fiction, Pickering reasoned that similarly optimistic projections since the time he started his tour in Russia more than three years ago have proved correct, while pessimistic warnings of social unrest or even civil war are now forgotten."Three years ago, if I had predicted the Moscow of today with mobile phones, new Western cars and dozens of pricey restaurants and clubs, people would definitely have stopped asking me for hot stock tips.

"Three years ago," he went on, "if I had predicted that the majority of major U.S. firms in Moscow would be doubling their sales and revenue every year, and that Russia would be home to over 700 American firms, with offices from St. Petersburg to Khabarovsk, people Pickering recalled a Moscow in which vegetables were scarce and fruit was hard to come by, while you could count the number of upscale restaurants on one hand.

But the ambassador also said Russia's next improvements would not come on their own and long-term U.S. involvement and investment would be necessary. And he had a warning.

"One thing I have learned in my three years here is that all of us Americans have a tendency to underestimate this country, underestimate Russia, to underestimate this people's great adaptability," he said.

"We underestimated the Japan of the 1950s, and we will be sadly mistaken if we underestimate the Russia of the 1990s."