The Foreign Service Journal, December 2011
D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 1 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 47 major, if still incomplete, success. Politically, the United States en- gaged on concluding arms control and conventional forces agreements and bringing these new nations into the tent of global institutions. Beyond superpower high politics, however, a sad, volatile narrative was unfolding. The vast majority of So- viet citizens were slammed with hy- perinflation and suffered from spot food shortages, price hikes and a surge in corruption. This brought many into the streets — some to protest, some to sell their meager belongings to keep the lights on. So-called shock therapy was derided by many Russian decision-makers and the man on the street, who bitterly commented that it was “all shock and no therapy.” Constant coverage of demonstrations in various capi- tals, civil war in the Caucasus and Tajikistan, and an eco- nomic freefall spawned a voracious appetite for U.S. mission reporting and generation of policy options. Wash- ington’s interest in economic developments in Russia and Ukraine was particularly intense. As a junior officer in Kiev (now Kyiv) in the early 1990s, I saw unending streams of high-level delegations from the U.S. interagency community, sometimes coordinated on key messages, sometimes not. The parade of bilateral, multilateral and nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders strained the capacity of Ukrainian decision- makers to meet with and digest the reams of economic pol- icy advice being offered. The quality of economic management in the NIS also varied wildly, fromWestern-educated central bank gover- nors to Soviet-trained bureaucrats still waiting for publi- cation of the next five-year plan. The lack of institutions and trained people to staff them became the Achilles’ heel of our policy dialogue and required a long-term approach to economic policy development. The international financial institutions and the U.S. Agency for International Development played important and largely positive roles in advising post-Soviet govern- ments on matters of urgency, including exchange rate con- trols (bad), privatization (good, if handled transparently) and money supply. While the quality of USAID-funded contractors varied, the agency’s economic reform pro- grams of the 1990s provided a concrete, practical way to channel economic policy advice, and gave focus to host-government efforts to escape a downward eco- nomic spiral. Back to Basics As a consumer of, and contribu- tor to, economic reporting at the time, I saw the constant press for more information on the economies of the NIS countries. In that pre-In- ternet era, the creaky Soviet phone systemproved unreliable and e-mail was still over the horizon. At the same time, the paucity of Russian-speaking, country-savvy specialists in Washington afforded U.S. mis- sions in the region an opportunity to influence the policy development process. Given the lack of reliable economic and trade statistics in the NIS, the best economic reporting often came from good old shoe-leather, “walk the beat,” re- search. In my experience, the best officers took the time to build personal relationships with key opinion- and deci- sion-makers, as well as talking to the “man on the street.” Whether bumping along bad roads in Uzbekistan or fly- ing into a Siberian winter, such officers would obtain first- hand observations on the breakdown of the Soviet coal distribution system or the lack of spare parts supplied by a factory in Lithuania to a power substation in Kyrgyzstan. During one memorable road trip in a Central Asian country, my economic officer colleague and I got stuck in a very cold airport due to fuel shortages. Making the best of it, we called on the airport director to get a sense of what was happening far beyond the capital. While initially a bit puzzled as to why two Russian-speaking Americans would want to meet him, he opened up over time (and more quickly over a bottle of vodka) to bemoan his inability to pay for fuel from the refinery given the state airlines’ func- tional bankruptcy. He boasted of his valiant efforts to pay his airport staff their $45 per month wages before he would take a kopek, but his slick leather office furniture suggested otherwise. Given the breakdown in the Gossnab (state supply) sys- tem and falling production around the former Soviet states, good old-fashioned capitalism first appeared in the rynoks — the produce and consumer goods markets in major cities. In Kiev, open-air markets sold everything F OCUS Probably the best example of the value-added role of economic reporting from this period is seen in U.S. efforts to develop an East-West energy bridge.
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