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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sunny Forecast on Thin Ice

I must begin this review by declaring an interest or, more accurately, an animus. Some weeks ago Richard Layard, the co-author of The Coming Russian Boom, in the course of a press conference he was giving to promote the book, criticized as too "pessimistic" my coverage of Russia -- I was the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times from 1991 to 1995. I was not present, but heard of it from a colleague. I was annoyed.


Reading the book has purged the animus. I now see where Layard is coming from, and I realize that what I mistook for a casual put-down is in fact a fundamental disagreement. I simply do not share many of his -- and his co-author John Parker's -- views about Russia.


The authors are right to puncture the pretensions of the "Russia is different" argument. They dismiss Fyodor Tyutchev's famous dictum that "In Russia one can only believe" as self-serving nonsense, even if a genius like Dostoevsky believed it.


The authors are correct to predict strong economic growth for Russia over the next decade. They rightly credit Boris Yeltsin with sticking to a course of relative openness and reform, and they place no credence in the view that Russia will either fracture further or take steps to recreate the Soviet empire in a Russian form.


Much of the writing is admirably dispassionate and well-informed. Layard has spent a lot of time in Moscow working as an adviser to various sections of the reform machine. Parker was The Economist's Moscow correspondent during the last years of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Russia, during which he wrote an account of how work was organized in a Soviet factory that I keep to this day as a model of this kind of writing.


But overall "The Coming Russian Boom" skates on thin ice, and never more so than when the authors seek to oppose what they view as fashionable pessimism with their own robust sunniness. A telling example of this phenomenon comes at the end of their discussion on "Is Russia Different?" when they cite polls which show that over 70 percent of Russians want freedom of conscience and of expression, even for those with whom they disagree. From these statistics the authors draw the conclusion that "those are attributes not of a unique, messianic state but of what Russian reformers have long held up as their aim: a normal country."


The word "normal" is the danger sign. If by this they merely mean a country that relies predominantly on market forces rather than central command mechanisms, and that accords some place for periodic elections, then Russia is and may well remain a "normal" country, joining other "normal" countries like Britain, India, Turkey, Peru, Nigeria and Poland. But this is a very low basis on which to proclaim success.


Russia cannot overnight be shorn of what makes it singular. Its people show no signs of regarding government as anything other than an imposition; and all levels of government continue to view the people as there to be imposed upon. The political classes will remain convinced for some time yet that international relations is a zero-sum game in which cooperation is a tactic rather than a habit. The grip that corruption and (in some areas) organized crime has on every level of power will not be easily loosened. The state will not easily recover its ability to control the territory it is supposed to rule, and the Russian Army will not cease to be a rabble any time soon.


The world has no "place" for Russia -- not in NATO, not in the European Union, not in Asia, not even, fully, in the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, which has been made into a partial, political G-8 in order to bolster Boris Yeltsin. Because of its size, its shambolic state and its so far unsuccessful search for a post-imperial role, Russia will be "abnormal" in all of these ways, and dangerously unstable, or simply dangerous, because of them.


We cannot know if Layard and Parker's prediction -- that Russia will by 2020 become the economic wonder of the world, outstripping Poland, Hungary and China -- will be realized. Russia has, they write, "a new dynamism, based on rapid privatization and substantial concentration of wealth." It does: Some of the new rich are very dynamic, as well they might be, since privatization has given them -- by any standards corruptly -- huge wealth and influence, which is presently being spent conspicuously in most of the fashionable and many of the unfashionable cities of the world, preferably not in Russia.


This situation may change, and probably will. The grasping nouveaux riches of Latin America brought their money back home when the policies of their governments encouraged them to do so. But political instability, disregard for civil rights, and the constant temptations of populism and authoritarianism remain in many of these societies, especially the larger ones. Why should it be different in a country like Russia with a much more oppressive past?


There is much shallow pessimism in the media -- about everything, not merely about Russia -- though most Western newspapers, mine included, were extremely supportive of reform and the reformers whom Layard served and Parker described. But the most concentrated tirade against Russia's hopelessness I have ever read came not from a newspaper, but from a colleague of Layard, whom he admired.


Jeff Sachs was the best known of the foreign advisers in the early days of the Russian government, and the most publicly quoted. He, like Layard only much more ferociously, lambasted reporters for their pessimism. He resigned early in 1994, after the State Duma swung towards the nationalists and communists. And he has since excoriated the politicians whom he served for their corruption, their ruthlessness and their single-minded preoccupation with milking the country. He has been supported, though in a more nuanced way, by Anders ?slund, the former Swedish diplomat who was also an early adviser.


Advisers, however talented and committed, can be worse than journalists in their enthusiasms and aversions. They get close, but the heat of the kitchen can shrivel judgment as well as expand it. Layard and Parker have written a good and informative book that reads well and should last. But they cannot know that Russia will boom: No one can.





"The Coming Russian Boom: A Guide to New Markets and Politics" by Richard Layard and John Parker. 380 pages, Free Press (U.S.), $27.50. Simon & Schuster (U.K.) ?18.99.