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Remembering Gaidar, man of many talents

Unfairly savaged by Russian populists, Russia’s radical reformer was a brilliant technocrat, a rigorous academic, and a good man. Marek Dabrowski remembers his friend Yegor Gaidar.
Marek Dabrowski
3 May 2010

The sudden death of Yegor Gaidar on December 16, 2009 came as surprise to many of his friends, myself included, well aware though I was of his serious health problems. Over some twenty years, I was fortunate to collaborate with Yegor very closely: before he came to government; when, in late 1991, he became the Deputy, and then Acting Prime Minister; and when he came back to academia. I knew Yegor the policymaker, Yegor the politician, Yegor the academic, and, most importantly, Yegor the human being.

 

Yegor Gaidar reflecting on the transformation of the post-Soviet Russian economy

An awful lot of words have already been devoted to his role in initiating and carrying out the critical phase of Russia’s economic transition in 1992-1993. Some questions are simply destined to remain unanswered. Such as how complete and consistent the original “Gaidar program” was. Why some of its intended effects – macroeconomic stabilisation and growth – only came about with a big delay. Whether the economic and social cost could have been smaller. And what the team of “young reformers”, led by Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, would have done had they entered the same river again.

I have already on a few occasions expressed my opinion about the serious mistakes that were made in the last years of the Soviet Union and early years of the new Russia. These were mistakes that made the economic transition longer and probably more painful than it could have otherwise been. I have in mind here the delayed and gradual price and exchange rate liberalization; the lack of de-monopolization of many horizontally-integrated industrial organizations, which continued to run as they did do under the centrally planned economy; the delayed dissolution of the ruble area; and the Russian Central Bank’s inability to control money supply in 1991-1993.

 To be fair to Gaidar and his team, they were well aware of many of these challenges from the very beginning. The problem was that they faced serious political constraints that limited their room for manoeuvre. The political economy of market reforms was much more complicated in Russia than it was in the Baltic states, Czech Republic or Poland. Moreover, ex post facto critique – done with the benefit of hindsight – is always easier than projecting radical policy steps – through unchartered waters – ex ante. The fact remains that none of Gaidar’s critics in the early nineties were able to present a better alternative. They presented populist wishful thinking rather than a consistent and operational blueprint that would have allowed Russia to overcome its dramatic 89-91 collapse.

It was thanks to the determination of Gaidar and Chubais that Russia managed to break with the communist economic past and lay out foundations for a modern market economy. Of course, this legacy has been somewhat distorted by the recent wave of bureaucratic interventionism.

The role of Yegor Gaidar as policymaker did not end when he left Chernomyrdin’s government in January 1994. In the years that followed, he was a trusted assistant to his many successors, both as one of the country’s leading economic experts and as Director of the Institute for the Economy in Transition.

Besides his hugely significant role in history as economic reformer, Yegor Gaidar had two other important incarnations: as politician and as academic. Unfortunately, neither of his main political projects – “Russia’s Democratic Choice” and “Union of Right Forces” — proved successful in the long term. There were several reasons why he and his friends proved unable to build an influential political party able to fight the corner for open society and liberal capitalism ideals. First, he was personally handicapped by the label of “people’s enemy”, having been blamed by populists for the huge social costs of reforms (the same accusations were leveled against Chubais and the other young reformers of the early 1990s). Second, Gaidar was no political animal: he was never someone ready to resort to populist arguments and promises, or to say anything to please the electorate. Gaidar was, instead. a highly professional technocrat ready to serve for the public good. Third, the liberal and democratic forces in Russia — be careful not to confuse this with Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-populist “liberal democratic” party — have always suffered from internal splits. The obvious rivalry between party leaders weakened the movement. And, finally, Putin’s regime made sure there was little room for parties other than United Russia

Gaidar’s academic accomplishments resonated far beyond Russia’s borders. He was one of the only East European reformers to return to the academic world from which he came. In fact, his biggest intellectual achievements and best-known books (such as “State and Evolution”, “Anomalies of Economic Growth”, “Lasting Time”, “Collapse of Empire” and “State Power and Property Rights”) dated from the period after he left government.

Gaidar’s continued policy pursuits and (more limited) party political involvement did not influence negatively the intensity and quality of his academic work. His books and academic papers were never distorted by political or personal sympathies, antipathies, sentiments or egocentrism, which distinguishes him from so many current and former politicians. He always respected the rules of academic discussion. He was very solid and precise in documenting his hypotheses and findings. Though written in an accessible way, his books and articles were always of the highest academic standards and rigors. They were neither the loose essays nor personal memoirs that we have come to expect from other former politicians and policymakers. The only exception to this is his autobiographic “Days of Defeat and Victory”, which was published in 1996.

Most of Yegor’s academic work concerned itself with the comparative historical analysis of economic systems, institutions and policies. Even if the analysis was addressed primarily to the contemporary Russian audience, his findings were much more universal. Addressing the basic questions of economic and social development, Gaidar’s work continues to be used by researchers and policymakers in many countries across the globe. His comparative historical approach demonstrated the extent of his multi-disciplinary erudition and ability to theorize the practical experience of various countries and institutions.

Apart from his brilliant academic record, Yegor Gaidar’s legacy also includes building up the Institute for the Economy in Transition, one of the biggest and most influential think tanks in Eastern Europe. In the nineteen years of its existence, the IET has carried out many important domestic and international policy research projects, produced a great body of academic publications, and trained several key Russian researchers, policymakers and civil servants. Just like its founder, the IET’s influence reaches far beyond Russia’s boundaries.

Privately, Yegor was a modest person – open to people, remembering his friends, and always ready to help them. His was a good and intellectually brilliant personality. He will remain in our memory and hearts forever.

Marek Dabrowski is President of CASE (Centre for Social and Economic Research), a Warsaw based international think tank

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