Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For officials, it's survival of the fittest

A Russian diplomat in London, soon to return to a domestic posting, is getting ready: He is having new business cards printed. He and a colleague have formed a consultancy.


Russian life, always complicated, grows ever more so.


Senior government officials, seemingly under orders to curb their impulses to do business under the table, are instead being told the opposite.


A recent decree by President Boris Yeltsin on the subject, designed to make public service moonlighting illegal, specifically exempts consulting, as long as the consulting assignment does not fall within official responsibilities. The caveat simply makes partnerships useful; "Allo! Volodya? I have a delegation here anxious to hire someone to do what I should do".


My London friend is still amazed and a little disturbed by what is happening. He recently got a call from a superior offering some friendly advice. "Whatever happens", the boss said, "take care of your business. That's the important thing now".


The boss, a very senior Foreign Ministry official, has his own consultancy. His fees are astronomical. They are payable via a cutout, a friendly Western firm which maintains an account in the Russian's favor.


My friend is disturbed because years ago, when he graduated from the Institute of Foreign Relations, he set out to be diplomat, not a businessman. "But what to do? I can't live on my income".


When he returns to Moscow, he will earn 3, 000 rubles a month. Together, his parents, both on pensions, make the same, and his mother makes an extra 6, 000 rubles - as a consultant to a cooperative.


Some journalists I know, working with one of the big central dailies, just returned from Paris where they negotiated a joint venture. They hope to gain independence from the apparatchiks who are their editors - and to get rich.


Asked to state their business objectives, they list trading, import-export operations, consulting and - last and, I suspect, least - information.


That they will get rich is unlikely.


But independence, even while using their employer's office space, telephones and press credentials, is a worthy ambition.


This is the de facto privatization the theorists have been warning about. It has been proceeding at a hectic pace for several years. People in high places are rumored to have socked away millions. But people in low places are at it too and have been for a long time.


A recent congress of the Inter-Republican Exchange Union, representing the leading commodity exchanges in the ex-U. S. S. R. , lambasted the Yeltsin government for setting economic policies conducive to illegal business and to corruption.


The union has a point.


But don't look too closely at its member's own practices. Many, for instance, maintain a policy of giving shareholder-owned brokerage firms what amounts to a right of first refusal on all sales, giving them advance access to offer lists.


It is not mere policy which is conducive to self-dealing and double-dealing in this chaotic and worrisome environment.


Blame, not Yeltsin, but Darwin.