#13 - JRL 7024
The Russia Journal
January 17-23, 2003
When an emerging market never emerges
By Ajay Goyal
Can a country be called a developing nation if it refuses to develop for decades? How much time do you give to a market to emerge before you stop calling it an emerging market?
It causes considerable distress to Russians to hear their country has a Third World economy. Few of the symptoms and diseases of the Russian economy are either new or unique to Russia, and the country has problems similar to those of many African, Latin American and Asian nations.
Russians prefer their country to be called an "emerging market," which is still different from emerging Asian Tigers -- countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia that were showing double-digit growth till their economies crashed in 1996-97.
Another country that gets all worked up at being labeled backward and denied entry into pointless organizations such as the U.N. Security Council is my native India. The Security Council, which of late has only been doing latrine duty for the Americans, is the dream club of many a nation.
I gave up on India some 15 years ago, but my wretched soul never allowed me to surrender the passport and change my citizenship. Despite such time away from my native land, my Indian habits, unmistakable Indian looks, accent and other details that form my national identity are obvious. They get me harassed at almost every embassy, consulate and immigration checkpoint in the world. My treatment on Moscow's roads and the metro are a constant reminder that having a nuclear bomb does not allow a country to sit at the table of the rich.
Russians are having a tough time learning that lesson, too. Over the past decade, Russia and Russian leaders have looked at various models to label their country. In the latest attempt at image-building, one top official in the Economic Development and Trade Ministry compared the situation in Russia to that in Portugal and Spain after the war. If they could do it and make it to the European Union within 50 years, the argument went, so can we.
Others in Russia have praised the Chinese model. Some of the Communists are convinced that Deng Xiao Peng should be the new Lenin-like figure in Russia: Throw a few thousand people into jail, get rid of all political parties, restrict freedoms and give all business to party members, military commanders and their families.
More ambitious types spin the tale that Russia will develop along the lines of more evolved European countries such as the Netherlands -- whose size, roughly, the Russian economy claims it has attained. However, deep inside, all Russians admire only the United States and want to be an economic and military superpower like it. Wouldn't it be nice to send in the Marines and take over some small resort island states and oil-producing countries, so you don't have to pay exorbitant amounts for vacation packages, and can fill the gas tanks for free?
The more realistic and pessimistic ones fear that Russia might become like oil-rich but deeply corrupt Nigeria. The chaebolization of the Russian economy has meant that the South Korean model of post-war development has also come to stay in Russia. Almost all the parallels drawn with former Warsaw Pact countries and Russia's failure to develop as fast as the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland are angrily dismissed.
I am amazed at the lengths to which Indians and Russians go to avoid drawing parallels between their economies. Indians have an inferiority complex; they simply refuse to believe that any place on the planet can be more messed up than their own. So Indians claim some kind of a spiritual connection to Russia, basing it on the fact that some leader of Indian independence once wrote a letter to Leo Tolstoy, Indian movies were once popular in the Soviet Union and five or so Russian words sound like Sanskrit or Hindi.
In the linguistic sphere, Russians have shown more loyalty to their national identity than many Indians. South Indian languages such as Malyalam, Kannada and Bengali are intact, but Hindi is being tortured to death. Just try listening to any Indian yuppie talk to his or her kids or watch any of the 40 or so Indian cable channels: Indians are inventing dialects that sound like baby talk and are just as immature. English, the only unifying force in India, is taught so that Indians can grow up to become office clerks or write computer programming code. Russians, on the other hand, learn English so they can deal with the enemy and understand its essence.
Russians take enormous pride in their country and have plenty of self-respect. Indians do too, though their list of things to be proud of goes back some 3,000 years. While examining a selection of ice cream at a movie theater in London, I joked with the sales guy, obviously a third-generation Indian -- apparent through his dark skin, darker hair and awkward English accent -- that only the Americans could dream up so many flavors of ice cream.
He asked me if I were an American. I wiped my face and asked him if the mirror was foggy -- because he could have been looking at his twin Indian brother. Embarrassed, he admitted that I must be English like him (note he did not say British). I paid for the ice cream and left without revealing the secret of my origins. No Russian will call another a Pole, a Finn or, for fear of death, a Ukrainian.
But India has been a socialist backwater of the Soviet Union, and it pains Russians to be compared to it. Indians like India to be called a developing country, which, as they have been claiming for the past 20 years, will be a developed country in 20 years. To their credit, they are indeed developing the infrastructure they should have worked on 20 years ago. But, so far, basic amenities such as drinking water are considered a luxury in many villages, just like in Russia.
India is similar to Russia in that every shop, stand and market has its own rules. That rule usually is the stick of the policeman, the Russian version of "dictatorship of the law." The policeman is the rule-maker, the judge and the jury.
Why do I think we have a common soul?
On a trip to India, on a day the Indian government was feting its diaspora in an extravagant gathering in New Delhi, I bought a DVD player for my father, who is 65. He cannot get enough of Indian Miss Universes and Miss Worlds shaking their booties in Bollywood musicals, but since pirated cassettes don't really show the finer details, I thought of giving him the high-definition digital gizmo.
At customs, I asked the officer what import duty I had to pay. He sized me up, and, without losing a breath, threatened me with imprisonment and confiscation of all my property because my laptop computer did not have some "Indian export certification." He then took pity on me, and asked me to fold a $100 bill and pass it to him inside my passport to let me go.