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…