Does Economic and Political Liberalisation Work?

A retired diplomat’s memoirs lead to pondering on whether Gorbachev ever had a chance?

If you have a nephew or niece thinking of going into the foreign service, give them Gerald McGhie’s Balancing Act: Reflections of a New Zealand Diplomat, which is probably as true an account as it gets, excluding the long periods of tedium between the interesting experiences and excitements. They will be struck how much responsibility a young diplomat can sometimes have

McGhie was a diplomat in Samoa (read about his cricketing adventures), in Papua New Guinea, where he tripped to exotic places, and a domestic adviser over the crucial period when we were dealing with apartheid (perhaps a reminder that the diplomat’s role is not as central as it may seem at the time, but can still be important).

However, what this economist found most fascinating was his couple of postings in Moscow, the second time as ambassador. Both times he went there by way of Canada, where the ministry arranged for him to have Russian language tuition. (Actually he ended up as the head of mission the first time too. When in a tit-for-tat the Russians expelled our ambassador in response to our expelling theirs for getting involved in domestic politics – funding the Socialist Unity Party – McGhie ended up in charge.)

The two stints occurred in very different environments. The first from, 1979 to 1982, was the time of Brezhnev with the Soviet Union trundling along in its post-Stalin sclerotic mode. The second, from 1990 to 1993 is aptly described as the ‘fall of the Soviet Union’.

Broadly Michel Gorbachev took over from Brezhnev and tried to liberalise the regime, both economically and politically. Among other things this led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire and a kind of independence for the constituents (some joined the European Union). He was replaced in Russia by Boris Yeltsin and latterly Vladimir Putin, reverting back to a regime which appears to be a continuation of the Stalin-Brezhnev one, albeit based on robber capitalism underpinned by the power of the state rather than state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Why did Gorbachev fail? I do not accept that there is something inherent in Russians which makes them unable to function in a liberal regime. (Many emigrant Russians have made major contributions to democracies.) But I do have some respect for the argument that history and institutions have a continuity which does not easily nor quickly change.

The KGB did not fold up with the arrival of Gorbachev. Indeed one of their agents based in Dresden, East Germany, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire was Putin. He was appalled; the experience probably had a key role in forming his extreme Russian nationalism.

But I do not think that economists can dismiss the failure to achieve economic success so easily. Many were promising record Russian growth because it was becoming a capitalist economy. (I was there in 1993 and was appalled by the greed that many of the foreign ‘investors’ showed; many of the Russian officials they interacted with were just as corrupt.)

Gorbachev sought two kinds of liberalisation: a political shift to civil society and an economic shift to a liberal market. Normally we link the two, arguing they go together. It is probably true that civil society requires a degree of market liberalisation but I am not sure that the two necessarily go lockstep. Perhaps one can shift towards a civil society without initially carrying out all the economic changes.

(Curiously the Chinese appear to be trying to liberalise the economy but with very timid moves on the civil society front. We shall see whether the economic changes rip open the state’s political dominance. My guess is that if they do it will take time – perhaps after generational change.)

Moving to civil society seems easier. For instance, the power of the KGB might be wound back. Dimitri Shostakovich’s music is riddled with the anxieties of someone living in an oppressive regime. His wonderful eighth string quartet, written in 1960, is composed around his musical signature. At one point there are three loud knocks, followed by the signature and then a further three loud knocks. It is speculated that they reflect the practice of tapping three times under the table to indicate a KGB agent has entered the room, or perhaps the early morning three bangs on the door when the KGB took you away to the gulag. (Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by the door, so when it happened to him – fortunately it never did – he could leave the house without disturbing his family too much.)

So pervasive and powerful has been the KGB (it goes under other names today) that winding back is easier said than done. Many benefit from the authoritarian state and do not take easily to the loss of those benefits and power.

The same problem applies with market liberalisation. It makes some worse off and they resist the changes. Too many economists claim that the gains from the changes would be so great that the resistors can be bought off. You will recall that the Rogernomes promised an enormous increase in growth in GDP; they were not too different from overseas ideologues including those predicting Russian gains.

In fact the research shows almost no evidence of an acceleration of economic growth following neoliberal changes. What it does suggest is that there may have been improvements in the quality of output from the increasing of competition, but even that conclusion is riddled with caveats. To be frank, someone who said that there were no net gains from a neoliberal revolution would find it easier to make their case than that for the fabulous promises the Rogernomes made. I do not think either is right but the economic gains from market liberalisation take time to appear and, as a result, are difficult to measure.

You can see the difficulty that Gorbachev faced. The gains from economic liberalisation would be small, many would be worse off and they would not come quickly – whatever his advisers promised. There was pain, there was little gain and Gorbachev fell.

Better advice from the West would have been for a kind of Marshall Aid plan which was intended to support Western Europe’s path to civil society and a liberal market regime after the Second World War. I’d love to see such an approach to Ukraine and yet I am reluctant to advocate it because the regime is so corrupt and most aid would be wasted. As, no doubt, would have happened in Gorbachev’s Russia. History is riddled with ‘what a pity we did not do better’.

McGhie tells much of this story though not from an economic perspective. But ultimately his account suffers from the defect of being a diplomat, a defect that no doubt your niece or nephew would suffer too. In the middle of the exciting narrative his term in Moscow ended, he was replaced, and there was no follow-up. That is why we need academics and historians – to tell the whole story.