In the complex geopolitical situation at the threshold of the 21st century, an important question presents itself: Whose side will Russia be on? The answer largely depends on the West's policies toward Russia and whether the West will choose to be guided by emotion and market-serving considerations or will be driven by a strategic choice based on the understanding that it needs a prosperous Russia--a Russia that, while a competitor and a rival, is also a partner and a full-fledged democracy. That, however, will require a good two or three decades, perhaps longer, for it will take that long to resurrect Russia's economy and give hope to its people. The seven years of reform that Russia has had so far are definitely too short a time.
Indeed, East Germany launched reform before Russia, from a better starting point and with massive support from West Germany that vastly exceeded the amount of loans extended to Russia by the IMF and other external sources. And yet East Germany has yet to fully put communism behind it.
The recently publicized scandals in Russia are completely out of proportion with the actual problems in that country, including the scale and scope of corruption. But in terms of their effect on our relations, the scandals present a threat to the strategic interests of the West and Russia alike.
Corruption and crime have evolved as major concerns and have seriously impeded Russian reform. Reducing corruption and crime to a certain minimal level where they will no longer jeopardize the reform effort will take concerted action.
I remember first running into the money-laundering issue in 1995, when I was part of the Russian team preparing the Halifax summit. The Russians then suggested an agreement enabling Russian law enforcement to obtain information from Western banks on cash flows out of Russia. The proposal was neither rejected nor accepted. Apparently the idea of making such information available to Russians seemed then out of line with the West's rules and interests. As a result, at least four years have been lost.
And now we have a scandal on our hands--as if we had not known all along that $10 billion to $15 billion was leaving Russia annually and that at least half of that money had to be laundered.
On the other hand one should appreciate that corruption is not an inherent Russian trait. Rather, it comes as the inevitable result of the fact that merely 10 years ago the only kind of equality Russians knew was that of poverty. One should also understand that the newly obtained freedom quite naturally has been used by some people to enrich themselves at any cost, that bureaucrats are mere mortals who bear the burden of decision-making and who are being paid pennies for what they do. They have little if any job security and worry about the future.
All of that is plainly unavoidable today and will be history tomorrow when things are once again back to normal in Russia.
Now the problem at hand is not that the Western press has mounted a campaign against corruption in Russia. If that were the case, I would only be grateful. After all, sometimes outside pressure can give the authorities extra determination and resolve.
The problem is that the media are spreading lies and providing the public with information that can be described as half incompetence, half ill intentions. The apparent motivation is to whip up emotions.
The entire media coverage about the embezzlement of the IMF funds is sheer lies. I personally have worked with the IMF for four years and am in a position to state with authority that, with the procedures the IMF has put in place, it is simply impossible to steal its money. A country can perhaps spend such funds in a less-than-optimal manner. But then, the IMF extends its loans as support for national budgets or foreign exchange reserves; no other goals are specified.
Yes, the reform has yet to bring prosperity to Russia. And yes, the reformers of the '90s are on their way out. But what has been done has effectively transformed Russia. One could say that seeds have been planted and the crops are rising. What we need now is time and patience. Please, do not trample on the shoots.
The writer is a former minister of economy for the Russian Federation.