In an odd way, Moscow in the fall of 1991 resembled the west African nation of Ghana in February 1983.
Sure, it was warmer in Ghana. But in both places food was scarce, even though the land was rich and fertile. The governments were shaky. And the Ghanaian currency, the cedi, was worth about the same as, or maybe a little more than, the Russian ruble is worth today.
A fistful of cedis then and a fistful of rubles now could buy about the same number of goods, which is to say not many because there weren't many goods around at any price. The preferred medium of exchange in both places was barter or the U.S. greenback.
Big state companies dominated both economies and the Ghanaian government, like Russia, maintained a wildly unrealistic exchange rate, thus effectively confiscating 97 percent of any foreign investment. Because of the exchange rate, farmers who grew the country's main export crop, cocoa, would get only 2.75 Ghanaian cedis for every dollar's worth of produce, about 3 percent of the real value of the cocoa in cedis. Ghanaian farmers smuggled their crops to neighboring countries and Ghana, like Russia, imported food.
If some of the symptoms of Russia's economic illness bear a depressing resemblance to that of Ghana in the early 1980s, so do the remedies. Though it once promised an alternative way to build a society, the crumbling superpower must now undergo the same painful economic chemotherapy taken by developing countries from Bolivia to Ghana, from Mexico to Poland.
Many advisers from the International Monetary Fund now helping the former Soviet republics are the same people who worked in other developing countries. One group that visited Russia, Armenia, Moldavia and Georgia last week included German and Peruvian economists with extensive experience in Latin America reform programs.
"What radical reforms elsewhere show is that it is possible to do certain things quickly and make progress," said Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard University economics professor who has advised the governments of Bolivia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Russia.
A country's currency can become convertible, stimulating investments, exports and competition. A useless currency can once again become a useful store of value.
In some cases, the results of tough economic regimens have been dramatic. Bolivia stopped a 50,000-percent-a-year runaway inflation in days. Poland has given birth to 300,000 new businesses in two years. Ghana has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in private investments.
In other cases, the programs have crumbled along with the political will to implement them. Argentina now appears to be making progress with a tough program, but only after half a dozen failed attempts. Brazil slipped backward. Zambia's former president, Kenneth Kaunda, pulled away from a tough program after food riots broke out, only to lose power in elections as the economy continued to deteriorate.
Sachs warned that even the success stories show that there can be "underlying chronic problems that can take years or even decades to solve" and that "will take a degree of political fortitude that is very rare."
"These countries provide an important perspective for Russia," said David Lipton, who worked at the IMF for eight years and now advises the Russian government. "An economic shock program doesn't turn a country into a Spain or a Greece overnight," he said, citing two relatively well-off countries that many developing nations hope to emulate. "But it creates financial stability and then you can go about solving your other problems."
Though the economic transformation Russia is attempting is unprecedented in size and scope, some of its problems resemble those of other developing countries.
"There are similarities to Russia," Lipton said. "In Ghana, the financial disaster had led to a breakdown in the real economy. Things could not be bought. Money was no longer used as a medium of exchange. The first step to fixing the real economy is restoring the use of money."
Ghana has been the IMF's prize pupil for most of the last decade; goods have returned to stores, farm output is up, foreign investors are developing light industries and the mining sector. The economy has grown by about 5 percent a year.
During that time, the IMF itself has learned many lessons that are now being applied to the ex-Soviet republics. One is that repairing a country's foreign trade and current account imbalances cannot be divorced from the far-reaching transformation of that country's own internal economy. Until recently, the IMF did not meddle directly in overhauling internal economies, leaving such "structural adjustment" to the IMF's companion lending organization, the World Bank.
"It has become very difficult to distinguish between the two," said Michael Bruno, an economics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a former governor of the Bank of Israel. "You cannot open up and reform economies without tackling both fronts simultaneously."
The IMF has also abandoned whatever gradualism it once tolerated for a philosophy of sudden, radical economic reform. The more dramatic the change, the more dramatic the economic response and the less likely that political jitters will lead to a pullback from full implementation of a program. Russian reformers have cited Brazil and Argentina as examples of countries where the initial success of reform programs failed because they were not swift and comprehensive.
General Prescription The general economic reform prescription looks like this:
1) A country frees prices and eliminates subsidies. The dramatic price rises that result effectively wipe out the value of savings and reduce people's purchasing power. In the short-run, it reduces the demand for goods. In the long-run, it increases the supply by increasing incentives for farmers and factories to produce.
2) The government balances its deficit-ridden budget and slashes the size of its bureaucracy. Deficit spending is inflationary and sucks up money that might otherwise be invested in producing activities. The end of subsidies helps balance the budget, though big layoffs are often needed.
3) The central bank stops printing money. This slows down inflation and helps stabilize the currency.
4) The country devalues its currency, or allows it to float, then pegs it to the U.S. dollar at a realistic rate of exchange. The devaluation encourages foreign investment and makes a country's own goods more competitive on world markets.
5) State companies are privatized. This should improve the efficiency of the companies and further reduce the government budget deficit.
Bolivia was one of the first countries to undergo shock therapy. In August 1985, it cut six zeroes from its currency's denomination, changed the name of the money from the peso to the boliviano and stopped the printing presses. It privatized some state companies and cut the swollen payrolls of those that remained in public hands. It laid off 23,000 workers from the state tin mining corporation, which had three desk workers for every miner. It slashed payrolls at the state airline, which had 600 employees for each of its 18 planes. The planning minister told state enterprises they could spend only what they took in, allocating money from day to day.
The effects: Inflation fell to about 4 percent a year, down from five-digit annual increases. The country's foreign currency reserves climbed from $63 million to $293 million.
Moreover, Bolivia did this without a stabilization fund and with few exports for foreign currency. It mines tin and exports a little natural gas to Argentina, which itself has not been very reliable about paying its bills.
"Bolivia went from being an unstable poor country to a stable poor country. In a way, that is all Russia can hope for," Lipton said.
Yet even success stories like Bolivia contain some cautionary notes. Unemployment in the land-locked South American nation climbed to 26 percent from 19 percent. And when tin prices fell and made that key industry's woes worse, an uprising broke out and the government jailed more than 150 union leaders.
In some countries, however, economic shock therapy can actually be popular. In Argentina, after several failed attempts at economic reform, a tough program has won support from people fed up with a deteriorating economy and triple-digit inflation.
The Argentine government has devalued the currency and created a budget surplus. It took steps to create a freer market economy, like abolishing the quasi-public associations that regulated big industries. Despite his budget cutting, the economics minister has become one of the most popular politicians in the country. Inflation has plunged and in a silent vote of confidence, many Argentines and foreigners are bringing money back to the country.
"Argentina shows that a program can be popular," Lipton said. Russian President Boris Yeltsin "is tremendously popular, and the most important determinant of success is really whether Yeltsin can explain it to the public, show that he is acting on behalf of his people and gain support for setting down policies for the future."
Poland offers the most direct analogy to Russia because of its Communist history. Reversing the economic decline there has proven more difficult. Output dropped 11 percent in 1990 and 9 percent in 1991. Big state enterprises remain in the control of the government, which is reluctant to shut them down and unable to sell them.
But the private sector has flourished. Private companies control virtually all retail trade. About 30 percent of the economy, the fastest-growing part, is in private hands. Agricultural output is up, and "it's not the weather," said Lipton.
Exports have climbed by 40 percent, including increases in the exports of chemicals in a competitive world industry. The currency has stabilized, and inflation has eased. The budget deficit, equal to about 7 percent of the economy, has turned into a surplus of about 3 percent.
Will It Work in Russia? Yet, some economists remain unpersuaded that past experience can serve as prologue in the former Soviet Union.
In places like Bolivia and Argentina, there were long histories of market systems, albeit ones that had gone out of control. Therefore, once monetary and fiscal reforms were implemented, the market system responded.
"How do you prepare someone in a managerial position to take on market forces? The system is not set up for that," said Marshall Goldman, a Wellesley College economics professor and deputy director of the Harvard Russian Research Center. Even in Poland, some remember a pre-Communist economy. Goldman said, "In the former Soviet Union, there is no foundation on which to build. They don't understand what they're missing."