Russia Goes Begging
As Ukrainians successfully produce goods and privatize government industries, Russians pay lip service to reform and seek more foreign aid
AFTER the failure of the Soviet coup, the West didn't have to wait very long to hear Moscow's favorite tune. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's envoys are once again circling the globe, and, at least for the fourth time in the last 12 months, Americans listen compassionately to a stringent Russian plea: "Give us!"Last fall, the Soviets asked the United States for, and were given, $1 billion in credit guarantees for the purchase of American grain. They used this money up in no time and in April were already lining up for more. President Gorbachev told the White House that another $1.5 billion agricultural credit was badly needed to smooth the country's transition to the market economy. Now, almost half of this money is gone, too, but the promised reform has not even started. In June, as American grain was pouring into Soviet warehouses, a group of academics put together a so-called "Grand Bargain," an ambitious plan to provide the USSR with $30 billion annually to finance the reform. It was politely shelved by the West. But this month, after the dramatic events of Aug. 19-21, Russians are out again, their hats in hand. "We are asking for billions - not millions - of dollars," says Ruslan Khasbulativ, the chairman of the Russian Republic's parliament. In the past 12 months, not a single meaningful enterprise has been privatized in Russia; not a single government ministry, important instruments of state control over the economy, has been disbanded. Yet, there have been dozens of envoys to the West who have tried to capitalize on their lip service to "reform." Tragically, these two words, "give us," have become in Russia a sort of second national anthem, a reflection of an important part of the national psychology. Striking miners ask the government for more money and better food; factory workers for high salaries and free apartments. Peasants wait for some good guys in the ministries to ship them fertilizers and new combines, while the Russian government seems to be more preoccupied with getting food from abroad than organizing production at home. "We have become a society of welfare bums," Vitaly Korotich, a well-known Soviet magazine editor, commented bitterly. He told the truth. The tumultuous years of perestroika have clearly indicated that in more than 70 years of communist rule, Russian society has acquired an infallible ability to produce fiery speakers but virtually extinguished individuals who instead of "give us" would say "let's make it." Even as Gorbachev's envoys make another attempt to get the world to pay for Russia's "good intentions," I received a letter from a relative in the Ukraine, a republic that declared its independence in the aftermath of the botched coup. She writes that last spring she acquired a plot of land, planted potatoes, vegetables, and corn, bought a few ducks, chickens, and rabbits. By the end of August, she had her basement stuffed with smoked, packaged, and canned food, enough to feed the whole family during the winter. She even hopes to sell some of her excess produce at the market for a hefty profit. Other Ukrainians have done more or less the same, which explains why farmers markets in this state are displaying mountains of food priced three or four times lower than in Moscow. This is something that the Ukrainian independence is designed to protect. Deplorably, President Bush castigated the Ukraine's independence drive as a "hopeless course of isolation" when visiting Kiev in July. However, I would like to invite Americans to answer a simple question: Would it be fair if someone who didn't move a finger to produce something valuable but had an unlimited capability to print rubles, came to the Ukraine with stacks of paper money and swept all its riches from the national market? Wouldn't Americans try to protect themselves, if, for example, the dollar -bill printing press had been standing in Mexico City and Mexicans had been coming to the US on devastating shopping sprees? This explains perfectly well why the Ukrainians are insisting on introducing their own currency and setting up customs posts along the borders. While Russia only talks about privatization, the Ukraine has already set up its privatization ministry charged with selling out state enterprises. The Ukraine has better roads and better transportation. And what's even more important, it has highly industrious, disciplined, and hard-working people not infected with the beggar's virus so common in other parts of the former Soviet Union. We are not asking for help, we are asking for investment, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said in one of his recent interviews. Such an approach underlines a more propitious business environment in the Ukraine than in other parts of the former Soviet Union, a psychological readiness of its people for a dive into a stormy sea of free enterprise. It underscores the creativity, incentive, and self-confidence of Ukrainians, something of paramount importance for anyone who strives to build a new prosperous society and to talk business with the rest of the world. President Kravchuk will be in the US at the end of this month. His visit will create a good opportunity to learn more about this newly born and very promising state.