This paper examines the problems of Russia's post-communist economic transformation. Its main thesis is that the Russian attempt at radical economic reform largely failed, because of extraordinary rent-seeking by old enterprise managers through export rents, subsidized credits, import subsidies and direct government subsidies, while they gained little from privatization. The reason why the managers were so strong was that the Soviet Union left large economic distortions behind and a virtually unconstrained economic elite. The reforms could have been reinforced if democratic institutions had been developed faster, or if the West had provided financial support for the reforms in early 1992. Over time, rents have dwindled, but Russian institutions have been seriously damaged by corruption. Intense competition over rents contributed to the financial crash in August 1998, but the competition also limits the rents, and might ease the way for future reforms.
During the last decade, Russia's GDP has fallen by about 40 percent, and GDP is likely to fall by several percent in 1999. In parallel, Russia has seen an extraordinary increase in income differentials and poverty. For long, unemployment was limited, but recently it now exceeds 12 percent. Why did these negative developments occur?
Many have argued that its reforms have been too fast and radical, criticizing "shock therapy", "neo-liberalism", monetarism and privatization. However, Russia's financial collapse in August 1998 made obvious that the reforms have neither been radical nor fast, but slow and partial. The Russian state remains large and pervasive. All liberalization indices show that the Russian economy is far from liberal, and corruption thrives on excessive regulations. As President Yeltsin (1999) put it in his Annual Address to the Federal Assembly on March 30, 1999: "We have gotten stuck half-way in our transition from the planned and command economy to a normal market economy. We have created a hybrid of the two systems."
Russia's key problem has been that a few people got very rich on the partial reforms, and they have bought a large part of Russia's politics politicians and officials. To preserve their rents, the newly-rich use their economic power to prevent liberal economic reforms, which could provide Russia with economic growth and welfare. Russia's post-communist period has been characterized by a struggle between reform and rent-seeking. Unfortunately, the reformers mostly lost. Joel Hellman (1998) has summarized this consequence of partial reform as "Winners Take All". Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny (1998) call these government pathologies "the grabbing hand".
Rents are usually understood to be money made on government transfers or any kind of market distortions. The issue in this paper is free money for the elite, made either on direct government subsidies or indirectly on government regulations. However, considering the peculiarities of post-communist transformation, I shall also include resources that are free in the sense not safeguarded by the rule of law, while I exclude social transfers and government financing for genuinely social purposes, even if some of that might be considered rents as well. Rents are understood as flows. The opposite of rents is profits earned on a competitive market.
In this paper, I review Russia's recent economic history from the perspective of rent-seeking. Initially, we need to consider Russia?s preconditions for reform. Second, to show the interconnection between macroeconomic stabilization, liberalization and privatization, I discuss their evolution in three periods. During the attempt at radical economic reform from 1991 to 1993, actual reforms were slow and partial, leading to extraordinary rent-seeking through subsidized credits and arbitrage in foreign trade. From 1994 to 1995, reforms proceeded and rents as well as inflation were brought under control. However, from 1996 to 1998 reform stagnated, as the rent-seekers made a comeback, blocking further reforms, which prompted the financial crisis in the summer of 1998. A fifth section sums up the development and politics of rent-seeking, and a sixth section considers alternative policies.
Legacies of the Soviet Union
A key feature of the Soviet system was the Nomenklatura system. A tiny elite controlled all decision-making and resources (Voslenskii 1984). In the 1980s, senior bureaucrats were no longer afraid of the supreme leader. They implemented orders that benefited them directly, ignoring commands contradicting their interests. The demise of the Soviet system was facilitated by a division within the Nomenklatura. Its economically-oriented members, primarily state enterprise managers but also some officials and politicians, thrived on the inconsistencies of the collapsing socialist system. They wanted the freedom of the market for themselves but regulations for others. These "red directors" were already well organized, primarily in the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Russian Association of Banks. By opting out of the socialist system for a partial market economy, the red directors left the Soviet elite split and politically vulnerable. When the Soviet Union collapsed a country, a political system, and an economic system disintegrated, leading to general confusion. Serious economic imbalances and distortions contributed to its fall. Some conditions were of great importance for the future attempts at market economic transformation (Åslund 1991).
First, Soviet finances collapsed in 1991, as the union republics stopped sending tax revenues to Moscow. The Soviet government faced a huge budget deficit, while international financing dried up, since the Soviet Union defaulted on its foreign payments. In late 1991, the central Soviet government lived on little but the emission of money.
Second, the union republics started issuing their own ruble credits without any coordination with the Soviet State Bank. The more Soviet ruble credits any republic issued, the larger share of the common Soviet GDP it obtained. This competitive issuance of one currency virtually guaranteed hyperinflation.
A third legacy was the idiosyncratic regulation of most prices, leading to greatly distorted prices. The combination of external default and partial liberalization made the market exchange rate fall like a stone in 1991, which aggravated the distortion of relative prices. Commodity prices were minimal, while industrial consumer goods were overpriced. In December 1991, the Russian state-controlled price of crude oil was 50 cents a ton, that is 0.4 percent of the world market price (Delpla 1993).
Fourth, a partial liberalization of prices and foreign trade aggravated economic distortions. The Soviet Union had one special exchange rate for every major good, and the differences between them were large. During Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's gradual economic reforms, an increasing number of Soviet enterprises received foreign trade rights. In 1988, 213 enterprises had foreign trade rights, and in 1990 their number approached 20,000 (Åslund 1991). With the right connections, such enterprises could acquire oil or metals at low Soviet state prices, obtain export licenses and quotas from the foreign trade authorities, and sell the commodities abroad at high world prices.
A sixth peculiarity was the effective legalization of management theft in 1988 through the adoption of the Law on Cooperatives. It allowed managers of state enterprises to establish private enterprises, which undertook arbitrage with the state enterprises they were managing, transferring the profit of state enterprises to management-owned private enterprises. Commercial banks became the most prominent new free-wheeling cooperatives.
Russia at the end of communism is often described as an institutional vacuum, but that is not quite true. The red directors thrived on institutional anomalies and economic policies incompatible with a market economy, such as unrestricted monetary emission, low interest rates, distorted relative prices, multiple exchange rates, rigorous licensing of entrepreneurship, and myriad regulations. Little but banking was free. Massive rent-seeking was going on and it would naturally lead to partial reforms.
Russia's preconditions for reform in 1991 greatly differed from those of China at any time. First of all, unlike China the Soviet Union suffered a multiple collapse, offering no room for a gradual approach. Second, piecemeal reforms had repeatedly been reversed in the Soviet Union, leading to the widely-held conclusion that the Soviet political and economic system was so petrified, that only a wholesale transformation was possible, while gradual reform had proved possible in China (Kornai 1992). Arguably, Soviet power was so dissipated that there was hardly any central policy-making power left in the Soviet Union, while China had some. Third, the structural differences in the economies were enormous, as China was still dominated by agriculture (Sachs and Woo 1994). The differences between Russia and China are so great that there is little reason to assume that similar policies would be optimal or even possible.
An Attempt At Radical Economic Reform, 1991-1993
In the fall of 1991, Russia was in total disarray. All monetary and fiscal discipline had faded away, while prices were largely regulated, leaving many shops virtually empty. People had little or no reason to work. In this dire state, Russia started its transition from the Soviet economic system towards a market economy. On the one hand, extraordinary rent-seeking prevailed at the time. On the other hand, Russia was subject to multiple shocks: external default, a collapse in state revenues, plummeting foreign trade, and a change of political regime. These shocks opened a window of opportunity for fundamental systemic change.
The first step towards profound change was the election of Boris Yeltsin as Russian President with a popular majority on June 12, 1991. After the abortive communist coup in August 1991, he obtained actual executive power. On October 28, President Yeltsin took a second step, by declaring his intention to undertake a radical market economic reform in a speech to the Russian Congress of People?s Deputies (Yeltsin 1991). A third step was that an overwhelming majority of the Congress adopted his speech as a guideline for the government?s economic policies by a few days later. A fourth step came a week later, when Yeltsin appointed a new type of government. Almost all old Soviet branch ministries were abolished, and most ministers were outsiders ? young liberal economists, led by Yegor Gaidar. Only a handful of old branch ministries persisted (Industry, Transportation, Domestic Trade, and Foreign Trade). President Yeltsin and his reform ministers declared their intention to build a normal market economy in Russia as fast as possible.
The reformers focused on getting state finances under control and drew up a balanced budget for the first quarter of 1992. Another priority was to liberalize the economy ? prices, domestic trade, foreign trade and entrepreneurship. Most prices and imports were liberalized, eliminating large price subsidies from the budget. The reformers slashed arms procurement by no less than 70 percent.
Five central struggles on deregulation and macroeconomic stability occurred in this period. One concerned the regulation of commodity prices and their exports. The second battle involved the money emission. A third related issue was the preservation of the ruble zone. A fourth head-ache was import subsidies, and a fifth concern was the freedom of enterprise (Åslund 1995).
Under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, the reformers endeavored to liberalize Russia?s commodity prices and exports in early 1992, but the anticipated liberalization was repeatedly delayed, as the energy lobby resisted ferociously and won. The managers of the state oil companies argued that Russia?s industry would collapse if it faced world market prices, and they were supported by the communists. The energy lobby was headed by Viktor Chernomyrdin, who replaced Gaidar's liberal minister of energy in May 1992 and Gaidar himself in December 1992. In the spring of 1992, the state price of oil was still one percent of the world market price. Even in 1993, the average Russian oil price was only 8.3 percent of the world market price (Delpla 1993). Managers of state companies producing oil and metals bought these commodities at the fixed state prices from "their" state enterprises through their private trading firms. They acquired export quotas and licenses through connections in the foreign trade administration and sold abroad at the world market price. The total export rents were no less than $24 billion in the peak year of 1992, or 30 percent of GDP, as the exchange rate was very low that year. The resulting private revenues were accumulated abroad, which led to a corresponding capital flight. The beneficiaries were a small number of state enterprise managers, government officials, politicians and commodity traders.
Second, a massive competitive emission of money had started in 1991. The reformers failed to get control over the Central Bank, which was supervised by the old semi-democratic Russian parliament, the Supreme Soviet. In 1992, its speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, pressed hard for cheap credits and triumphed (Matyukhin 1993). The Central Bank issued enormous credits at the subsidized rates of 10 or 25 percent a year, while inflation was 2,500 percent in 1992. A credit from the Central Bank was simply a gift. In 1992 alone, the net credit issue of the Central Bank of Russia was no less than 31.6 percent of GDP (Granville 1995a, p. 67) Of these, directed credits to enterprises, which were tantamount to subsidies, amounted to 23.0 percent of GDP (IMF 1993, p. 139). While these fortunes were less concentrated than the benefits from commodity exports, they made many Russian bankers rich.
A third concern was the persistence of the ruble zone, which rendered financial stabilization virtually impossible in all the member countries (Sachs and Lipton 1993; Hansson 1993). Many interests supported it. In Russia, the red directors wanted to continue "selling" unsaleable goods to the former Soviet republics, at the expense of Russian government credits. Commodity traders exploited the differences in price regulation between various former Soviet republics. The old establishment in other former Soviet republics thrived on cheap Russian credits. The cost to Russia was huge. The IMF (1994, p. 25) has calculated that in 1992 it cost Russia 9.3 percent of GDP in financing and 13.2 percent of GDP in implicit trade subsidies, amounting to a total cost to Russia of 22.5 percent of GDP. Russia could not afford these subsidies, which even exceeded Russia?s budget deficit. Strangely, the IMF supported the ruble zone against the Russian reformers. Only with the currency reform in Kyrgyzstan in May 1993, did the IMF take a clear stand against the ruble zone. In the course of the next two years, financial stabilization took root in one country after the other.
A fourth important struggle involved import subsidies. In the winter of 1991-92, fear was great that the country would suffer famine. Therefore, the reformers had no chance to abolish the existing import subsidies for food. A food importer paid only one percent of the going exchange rate, when he imported essential foods, but he could resell them relatively freely on the domestic market, pocketing the subsidy himself. These imports were paid for with western "humanitarian" export credits, which were added to Russia?s state debt. The total cost was 17.5 percent of Russia?s GDP in 1992 (IMF 1993, pp. 133, 139). These revenues were highly concentrated to a limited number of traders in Moscow, operating through the old state agricultural monopoly companies.
A fifth battle was fought over the liberalization of entrepreneurship. In January 1992, President Yeltsin issued a decree allowing anybody to trade anywhere at any time with anything at any price. This decree was modeled on Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz?s successful deregulation in Poland. The public response was extraordinary. In no time, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and started trading all over Russia. However, the established traders opposed the competition, and they solicited support from the mayors in the big cities. In April Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov prohibited this trade, and the police became preoccupied chasing street traders away. Other mayors followed suit and successfully eliminated the freedom of enterprise. In May 1993, a law on comprehensive licensing of virtually all economic activities was adopted.
The simple truth is that reformers dominated the Russian government only from November 1991 until June 1992. They tried to undertake radical reforms, but by June 1992 they were thoroughly beaten by a big business community of bankers and industrialists in cohort with the old parliament. In the fall, Russia was close to hyperinflation. The rent-seekers ? state enterprise managers, bankers, corrupt officials and commodity traders ? were organized and politically influential, while they faced little counterweight. They amassed huge fortunes, swiftly moving Russia from an average European income differentiation to one of Latin American heights (Milanovic 1998). These rents were derived either directly from government subsidies or indirectly from government regulations. If commodity prices, exports and imports had been deregulated in 1992, and if market interest rates had been allowed to prevail, these fortunes would never have been generated. Then, enterprises in Russia would have been forced to restructure to survive, as in Poland or Estonia.
De Melo and others (1997) have shown with regressions that the worse the initial conditions for reform were, the more likely a country was to fail. However, some countries undertook radical reforms in spite of adverse preconditions, and they have got the greatest positive effects, namely, the Baltic states, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The two latter countries had growth rates of 11 and 10 percent, respectively, in 1997.
In 1993, however, the reformers in the government made amazing headway. The dysfunctional ruble zone was broken up, and each of the former Soviet republics established its own national currency by late 1993 (Granville 1995b). Subsidized credits were abolished in late September 1993 with a simple government decree, and by November 1993 Russia had positive real interest rates. At the end of 1993, the exchange rate was fully unified, eliminating the last import subsidies. In parallel, the privatization of small enterprises was successfully undertaken, and large-scale privatization was under way. The economic costs had been great because of both the huge rent-seeking and necessary adjustment costs, but in late 1993 the reformers had accomplished so much that the reforms appeared irreversible.
How could these fundamental reforms be undertaken in late 1993, when they had seemed impossible in the spring of 1992? There were many explanations (Åslund, Boone, and Johnson 1996). Several rents declined over time for reasons beyond the control of politics. As people and enterprises learned not to hold money in any form, the velocity of money rose, and monetization fell, which reduced the inflation tax sharply. Therefore, the budget deficit could no longer be financed with the emission of credits. Similarly, the extreme price distortions and the very low exchange rate were done away with by an awakening market. Moreover, people learned what a market economy was, and their tolerance of unjustified subsidies withered, as critical media exposed various forms of rent-seeking. In 1992, managers called in chorus for more and cheaper credits, but when subsidized credits were abolished, hardly anybody demanded their return. The same was true of the import subsidies. In the referendum in April 1993, a majority of the Russian voters expressed support for radical economic reforms, giving the reformers a new breath. Most of these changes were conditions in a first real Russian stand-by agreement with the IMF, and the reformers utilized the IMF agreement to push through their own demands. Moreover, the dissolution of the Congress of People?s Deputies in September 1993 created a temporary political vacuum that offered both reformers and rent-seekers uncommon opportunities. The abolition of subsidized credits and the unification of the exchange rate were institutional changes that were locked in. However, the reformers suffered a set-back in the parliamentary elections in December 1993, forcing the departure of reformist Deputy Prime Ministers Yegor Gaidar and Boris Fedorov. Anatoly Chubais stayed as a single reformist Deputy Prime Minister in charge of privatization.
Inflation Was Defeated, But Its Structural Causes Persisted, 1994-95
The exit of all reformers but Chubais from the government led to a widespread expectation of a reversal of the reform policies, especially as the new government was composed of industrial lobbies, lobbying for privileges for their favorite enterprises. However, little happened to economic policy in 1994.
Prime Minister Chernomyrdin secured extraordinary monopoly rights for his creation, the natural gas monopoly company Gazprom, granting it extensive tax exemptions at the end of 1993. The value of these tax exemptions amounted to 1-2 percent of GDP. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets secured tax exemptions for the metallurgical industry, whose value amounted to about 2 percent of GDP. Soskovets also supported the National Sports Fund, which got the right to import alcohol and tobacco tax free. It soon became the leading importer of these goods to Russia. The value of this tax exemption was estimated at as much as $10 billion or about 3 percent of GDP (Bagrov 1999).
Domestic commodity prices had been liberalized in 1993, but to little effect, since the commodity lobbies kept domestic prices down through quantitative export controls. The World Bank and the IMF fought hard against the export controls. In July 1994, all export quotas apart from those for oil were abolished, and in January 1995 also the export quotas for oil were abandoned (Bagrov 1999). Yet, by rationing the export volumes through the pipeline system, the oil managers succeeded in keeping the domestic oil price artificially low. Even so, by 1995 the export rents had been reduced to just a few percent of GDP.
Even so, the budget balance was gradually undermined, and on "Black Tuesday" October 11, 1994, the exchange rate of the ruble fell precipitously by 27 percent. The exchange rate had assumed a real economic meaning, and powerful economic interests had gotten used to a reasonably stable and predictable exchange rate. Hence, this mismanagement or probably manipulation aroused a popular outcry. The main beneficiaries of a low exchange rate, the commodity traders, were no longer the dominant force in Russian business, as their rents were drying up. The leading economic policy-makers apart from Chernomyrdin were sacked by President Yeltsin, and Chubais was put in charge of macroeconomic policy as First Deputy Prime Minister.
In the spring of 1995 macroeconomic stabilization was finally put on track. Russia concluded its first full-fledged stand-by agreement with the IMF, with more than $6 billion in financing in one year. The government reduced the general government deficit from 10.4 percent of GDP in 1994 to 5.7 percent of GDP in 1995, although revenues fell by 3.6 percent of GDP. The government?s trick was to cut enterprise subsidies by no less than 7.1 percent of GDP and regional transfers by 2.5 percent of GDP, while socially important expenditures were maintained (see table 1). With strong IMF support in the government, Chubais won over Soskovets within the government over the elimination of the tax exemption for the National Sport Foundation, but the parliament prolonged it until the summer of 1995 (Bagrov 1999). By the summer of 1996, financial stabilization had been attained. Inflation dropped to 22 percent in 1996 and to 11 percent in 1997.
It is curious that it was possible to undertake a financial stabilization, by cutting subsidies, when the government was dominated by industrial lobbies. The causality is not obvious, and the explanations are many. First, the underlying reason was that the old rents were minimal. Subsidized credits and import subsidies were gone, and export rents were small. The sharp cut in subsidies made it at long last credible that profit-seeking would become more profitable than rent-seeking in Russia. Second, at long last the Russian government and the Central Bank pursued a coordinated economic policy, aiming at macroeconomic stabilization. Third, for the first time, the IMF was considering substantial credits, and its stand-by loan in 1995 amounted to 2 percent of GDP, which gave the IMF real political weight. Admittedly, on April 1, 1992, US President George Bush and German Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl had declared their intent to mobilize a Western aid package of $24 billion for Russia, but this claim was never substantiated or rendered credible. Fourth, the immediate cause was the currency crisis of October 1994, which greatly upset the Russian elite and created a political momentum for reform. Fifth, the reformers in the government fought better than ever. Their method was to hit all important interest groups at the same time rather than offering them any trade off. Enterprise subsidies and regional transfers were cut by two thirds. For those who lived on budget subsidies, this felt like shock therapy. Finally, Gaidar's party Russia?s Choice was actually the largest parliamentary faction, providing the reformers with a good base in the State Duma.
This was an extraordinary blow to all rent-seeking interest groups, and rather than rising to fight, the sudden reduction in subsidies left them in disarray left them humbled, illustrating that the smaller their rents the less their political power. Financial stabilization divided the Association of Russian Banks. When the inter-bank market dried up in the fall of 1995, financially strong banks did not call for any state support but tacitly favored bankruptcy of their competitors. At the same time, a new generation of private bankers took over from the old state bankers, facilitating but not necessitating a change (Dmitriev, and others 1996). Similarly, the old red directors lost ground to new businessmen. This is how shock therapy reforms should work. By changing the paradigm and the rules of the game, it entices some businessmen to opt for profits on competitive markets instead of rents, thus breaking up the rent-seeking lobbies.
Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman (Treisman 1998a; Schleifer and Treisman 1998) have presented an alternative explanation. They argue that many bankers were enticed by a new rent in the form of excessive yields on treasury bills, turning the interest of the bankers from inflation to low inflation and a reasonably steady exchange rate. Meanwhile loss-making enterprises started living on non-payments instead of budget subsidies. Non-payments were in fact subsidies but they did not boost inflation. They conclude that the Russian reformers used a less inflationary form of rent to lure the winners from inflationary partial reform into giving up their previous inflationary rents. Others have seen the loans-for-share privatizations in late 1995 as a government pay-off to new businessmen.