The failures of Africa and the ex-Soviet states have much in commonby Edward Lucas / June 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: The Shackled Continent
Author: Robert Guest
Price: (Macmillan, ?20)
It was a couple of years ago in Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet republics, that I realised that comparisons between Africa and the former Soviet Union were not completely silly. My hosts, a family of eight, lived in a two-room concrete hut with a dirt floor and leaky roof. Water and electricity were available for just a few hours each week. There were no public services of any kind in their village. Life was supported by subsistence farming and migrant work.
I had met my host, Rustam, on a plane from Moscow, where he had worked for three years as a labourer. A teacher in Soviet times, he had come home to find his sons, aged eight, nine and eleven, illiterate. They spent all day working in the fields. After dark there was no light to read by. Though painfully upset by this, there was little Rustam could do: he was returning to Russia in a month.
For most people in the countries once ruled by the Kremlin, the decline in living standards since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been less severe. But it bears some comparison with the 40 years of African history since independence.
Reading Robert Guest’s book The Shackled Continent, I was struck by similarities between the miserable economic and political failures in Africa that he catalogues so vividly, and the depressing scenes I had witnessed in 15 years of reporting the ruinous aftermath of communism. Of the problems that Guest highlights in Africa, there are six which are plainly visible in the former Soviet countries: lootable natural resources, bad government, bad politicians, isolation, fatalism and ignorance.
It starts with the oil, gas, gold and diamonds of Russia, with the steel and coal of Ukraine, and with the cotton and the aluminium of central Asia. Russia’s best known free-market economist, Andrei Illarionov, once remarked to me that the kindest thing foreigners could do for his country would be to bomb the extractive industries. That, he argued, only half-jokingly, would force the country to start producing goods and services that other people wanted, instead of living off the rents of what could be dug out of the ground.
In both Africa and the former Soviet Union, natural resources are good news for bribable officials and politicians. They may make government coffers awash with cash (as Russia’s are at the moment) but not for long. Nigeria shows that in the end, the temptation to steal is greater than the political pressure to share.
Natural resources plus weak institutions equals corrupt officials, which plague both Africa and the ex-Soviet world. African bureaucrats, as Guest describes, see their main job as self-enrichment, followed by doling out goodies to their friends and family. That sounds like Russia. My driver’s brother was a senior traffic policeman in Moscow. What would otherwise have been a painful and expensive journey through the thickets of car registration, taxation, safety checks and so forth was miraculously smoothed.
But this is not harmless: on a wider stage, it is a brake on lawful activity, and allows criminals to flourish. My driver once explained to me the riches that a top traffic cop could expect. It was partly a cut of the many small bribes which the patrols extort (and pocket) for breaches, real or imagined, of the traffic rules. It was also the lucrative ability to regularise illegal activity: signing off the paperwork for a stolen car, or restoring a drunken driver’s licence, and most of all the right to sell jobs to outsiders.
What could keep this under control is strong, honest political leadership. Guest points out that African politics is gravely short of good role models. That is true in spades in the former Soviet Union. A politician who talks sense clearly and doesn’t drink, like Vladimir Putin, counts as a wonderful exception to a dismal rule. Those in office live pampered lives; those in opposition are easily suborned. As in Africa, elections are shamelessly manipulated; official media are turgid and timid.
The result is decaying public services, where the rich enjoy the best pickings with the scraps left for the poor. Moscow, Kiev, and other big cities are well lit and well heated. But in the remoter parts of these countries clinics, schools, power and water decay unseen. Then there is economic isolation. Bad roads and long distances make it hard for poor people to sell their goods and their labour elsewhere in their country. Corrupt customs officials and inefficient ports make dealing with the outside world even harder.
The final two problems are cultural. In his hair-raising chapters on Aids, Guest notes that Africans find condoms and seatbelts equally unappealing. Exactly the same is true in Russia, which is why that country’s figures for HIV infection are as terrifying as a spell behind the wheel in the Moscow rush hour. When life is miserable, caring about the future is a lot less important than enjoying the present.
Lastly, there is ignorance. Guest only touches on the crippling effects of superstition in his book. But that rings a bell too. Russians are suckers for astrologers, psychics and the like. If you believe, as many Russians do, that drinking vodka and eating fatty food is a healthy way to survive living in low temperatures, it is no surprise that life expectancy is low.
But the real ignorance is a deeper one. Even educated citizens of the ex-Soviet countries can be amazingly unaware of the genuine reasons for their country’s decline. Yet the clear lesson of the past 15 years is that the best route to prosperity for post-communist countries comes from raising the level of foreign trade and foreign investment through low taxes, open borders and strong, clean but limited government.
The comparison should not be overdrawn. For all their decaying infrastructure and social woes, most former Soviet countries are literate, more or less industrialised and have functioning central governments. Few African countries can boast more than one of those qualities. But which way is history heading?