Friday, September 24, 2021

The wild west comes to Russia

If that last post was as frenetic as a Jason Bourne shaky-cam movie, it all came to a screeching halt due to a number of factors.

As some people are aware, I was one of many consultants to the Minister of Trade and I was asking him about prices.  He mentioned special economic zones where trade regs were waived for investors in the republic and tax breaks were the order of the day - mid 2000s - which was fine for foreign investment but what about the ordinary person?  

Yes, there was the glitz in the centre of town already mentioned, a new Ikea out of town, people wanted foreign white goods, there were new stadia going up which would become white elephants, new bridges, everything new, new, buy buy ... but the roads were potholed.  A foreign firm offered to fix them for a price, a reasonable price, guaranteed 20 years, but the city fathers wanted cut price of course, so they refused the offer and opted for the kickbacks to local firms and the result was the same old same old.

At the same time, people who had had nothing - their eyes were now big, they wanted a western life, many got out and disgraced themselves internationally, e.g. in Cyprus, my mate and I started going to Ikea, part of a new mega-complex and as we sat at a table eating Russian fayre, I noticed a u-shaped table arrangement and queues lining up, not for furniture, as my mate said, but for credit - subprime credit.

Oh no, I said, they're giving Russians credit?  After scratching for a basic living?  Yep, they were and guess what people were buying, apart from flat packs?  Yep - they were buying cars.  On those roads I mentioned.  Mayhem, an accident every time I went to work in town from my dormitory suburb.  Maxim Gorky: "Kuda, Rossiya?"  Where to, Russia?  She does not answer, just charges on ahead down the road.  In the last post, I mentioned the glitz of central town in the evening.  Everyone going here, there, everywhere, buying, buying.  Narcotics in nightclubs now.  Nasty.  Used to be just booze and ciggies.

I sold my car, bought a MacBookPro, started taking hire cars.  Here's how you did it - you stepped onto the road itself, hand out, someone stopped, you'd arrange the price, that was that. Cheaper for me in the long run, as long as I did not wish to travel outside of town, which I no longer wanted to.  But the traffic jams were now savage, so I went back to the old abandoned tramvai - remember that post the other day?  It didn't go down at all well with the female of the species but that was no longer my concern.

One day, some drunk in Moscow decided that all alcohol would be banned from shops - foreign alcohol that was.  Trouble was, it was the currency at ministerial and high mafia level, and so the  Moscow blip was reversed.  No one wanted a return to Yeltsin's late 90s crash but at least the dollar was pegged at 23 roubles for a long time.  

Other things were happening, as in the west - men were unemployed and the jobs were for women, which of course meant divorces, breakdown, only cranked up far more than in the west. Kids became obese, stomachs hung over belts, whereas no girl would have been seen dead like that in former years.  My older students bemoaned their younger sisses of 15, boys were feckless.  They'd always been a tad cavalier.

Back to the Minister - I asked about prices.  Yes, they were expecting western parity by the end of the decade.  I wasn't there to see it.  Western firms demanded it - Procter and Gamble, Microsoft.  At their bequest, the govt, Russia wide, cracked down on unlicensed computer software.  The roaring frontier economy was choking.  Gas prices [petrol] were skyrocketing, making my daily journeys now not cheap.

All the stall holders at mini-marts on roadsides were rounded up, cleared away, unless they were prepared to pay the exorbitant stall rentals at the central shopping barns miles away now.  Not many took that up. And Gordon Brown was provoking Moscow - every time he did it, Moscow retaliated on us expats.  We were resented, the Min was warned not to involve himself with foreigners, esp. British.  That was not the reaction of the ordinary person.  Not yet.

The writing was pretty well on the wall.  The boom days were over.  It had been a wild ride.  I came back to Britain, straight into an economic crash.  I was used to them by now.

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