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Russia's Failure to Reform

To commemorate its founding 25 years ago, PS will be republishing over the coming months a selection of commentaries written since 1994. In the following commentary from 1999, Jeffrey Sachs argues that only new, honest, and democratic leadership in Russia, combined with a real Western commitment to help, could hope to correct the country’s perilous political and economic situation.

CAMBRIDGE – Russia continues to stupefy and amaze. Ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, and nearly eight years since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has failed to find its way in the world. The economy has collapsed, with little sign of recovery. Corruption is everywhere. The political system lurches from crisis to crisis without any apparent connection between the political leaders and Russian society. President Yeltsin is ill and erratic. There are no trusted Russian voices on the world stage.

So the age-old Russian question echoes: “What is to be done?” One view holds that the problem lies in the strategy of economic reform that Russia adopted after 1991. Some people argue that Russia reformed “too fast,” that it should have adopted a gradualist reform strategy, something like that pursued by China. Others argue that Russia put privatization ahead of institutional reforms such as establishing a judicial system. According to this view, the key to Russia’s stabilization and eventual economic growth lies in a reinvigoration of state control over parts of economic life.

It is a big mistake, in my view, to blame Russia’s problems on the “speed” of its economic reforms, especially since there were so few actual reforms! I was an economic adviser to Poland (1989-1991), Estonia (1992), Slovenia (1991-1992), and Russia (1992-1993). I watched all of these countries (and many others) up close. I gave similar general advice in these countries. Estonia, Poland, and Slovenia have prospered; Russia has not. The reasons for these differences lie not in any excessive “speed” of Russia’s reforms, but in geography, structural conditions, and of course politics.