The Question: 'Shall I Stay?' Or 'Shall I Go?'

Whenever Moscow erupts in political or economic crisis, there is one phone call I always get. Whether it be from a friend or an editor, there is always someone who asks, "Are foreigners pulling out?"


With Chechnya on everyone's mind these past few weeks, this question has returned. "Shouldn't you just leave?" asks one friend from home. "That place sounds crazy."


"Round up a few businesspeople and ask them what they think," is the request from editors who have heard that the government is being run by Boris Yeltsin's bodyguard. "Ask them if they're leaving because of this. Ask them if they think you can do business in Russia." Of course I comply.


To people looking at this place from the vantage point of the civilized, predictable West, Russia is black and white. Either everything is great and we are witnessing the flowering of an economic miracle, or things are a mess and Russia is a basket case collapsing upon itself. A few months ago we were reading upbeat stories about privatization and the burgeoning stock market; now we're stuck with reports of a disastrous civil war, a leadership adrift, and the stock market at a standstill.


What is the innocent reader to believe? What's the truth?


The truth, as anyone who lives here knows, is somewhere in between. Russia has never been an economic miracle, and only three years into market reforms, it is certainly not one now. Yet at the same time the country is hardly falling apart.


No one is investing in the stock market right now, but that doesn't mean it is about to crumble. There are too many interested Russian parties (read: investors) for that to happen. As for the political crisis, Yeltsin seems to have snapped out of his supposed isolation and is meeting with leaders of all of the political parties -- something they have wanted for weeks, if not months.


You can imagine how silly I feel calling up businesspeople I know and asking them if they are closing shop, folding their years of experience into a few suitcases, and getting out. Their pat answer, of course, is something like "We're here for the long term" or "We at company X feel Russia has tremendous potential."


Of course they're not leaving. Even the 35 or so foreigners who have been forbidden to enter the State Property Committee headquarters by Vladimir Polevanov, the privatization minister who wants to renationalize some industries, are staying.


They, and many others, say reforms cannot be turned back. They say it is impossible to close the curtain again, to take Russia back to where it was before Yeltsin or even Gorbachev. Whatever happens now, there are people with private property who will defend it.


Is it possible to do business in Russia? Has it ever been possible to do business in Russia? The answer to those questions depends upon your expectations.


Granted, people from the West these days don't ask these questions as often as they used to. Maybe Moscow has so many crises that the world has grown numb. There have been two coups, three ruble horrors, a civil war, and various other smaller blips on the screen.


So, despite all the bad news of late, Westerners are not leaving. They are doing something harder: shrugging their shoulders and bearing it out -- again. They will wait for something better.


This country is neither black or white.