Out of Russia: Market mysteries get an airing

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - 'When will there be an end to this ideological terrorism?' demanded 'disgusted' of Moscow, joining a phone-in at the end of the first of a new series of radio programmes intended to teach Russians the basics of market economics. The angry woman was in a minority, however, as most of the calls coming in to the Ostankino broadcasting centre this week reflected the enormous public thirst for knowledge of how capitalism works.

The Free Market Economy, a 26- part series, has been made jointly by Radio Russia and the BBC as part of a wider educational broadcasting project called the 'Marshall Plan of the Mind'. The British Government's Know-How Fund has provided much of the financing.

Every Monday at 8.10pm, experts and ordinary people from around the world will talk about how the market manifests itself in their countries. 'The series is pro- market, but we are trying to get across that there are many variations of the market,' said the visiting producer from London, Jenny Lo. 'Russians are having a difficult time now. But in a way they are lucky because, as their country is in transition, they can choose the best bits from the world's systems.'

This Monday listeners heard Professor Rudi Dornbusch from Massachusetts, telling them that economics was the art of juggling with finite resources, and Russia's own expert, Grigory Yavlinsky, saying that the centralised Soviet system had shown it could not survive. There were also interviews with unemployed defence workers in Russia and the US to illustrate that economic change could be painful in East and West alike. The cheery presenter, Leonid Louneyev, got the audience hooked by promising quizzes in future editions with BBC souvenirs as prizes.

The course will get harder, as The Free Market Society goes on to discuss banking, property, privatisation, risk and bankruptcy, economies of scale, investment, the labour market, fraud and the reasons for international recessions and booms. The programme will also explore the limits of the market and ask to what extent the state should be responsible for such areas as law and order, the arts and the environment.

The Free Market Society could be just what Russians need for, although many are making a big effort to reform themselves and their workplaces, they often simply do not know how to go about it as their school years were wasted with endless lessons of Marxist- Leninist theory.

Their ignorance (as well as, in some cases, their desire for a fast buck) is seen when they trade, just plucking prices out of the air because they do not know what things are worth. A German businessman recently recounted how a Russian factory manager tried to charge him a six-figure sum for a piece of equipment which should have cost a few dollars. When the German challenged him, the Russian said: 'But look, that's what it says in this Western catalogue', and proceeded to show him the tool's serial number.

Russians' lack of economic education is also letting them down now as privatisation gets under way. The government has issued every citizen with a voucher nominally worth 10,000 roubles (about pounds 20) so they can each buy a small share in former state property, or perhaps club together with friends for a larger slice. But many people are standing on the street selling their cheques, sometimes because they need the cash but just as often because they do not know what to do with them. A small number of clever buyers, mostly young people who are more economically literate than their elders, are positioning themselves to become big shareholders.

The budding businessmen will no doubt be tuning in to the radio programme for extra tips, but the makers really hope the series will help the rest of the Russian population to catch up. Radio is a good medium because it reaches all parts of the country, including remote areas which television does not always serve.

Not everyone will like The Free Market Society. Some hardline members of parliament apparently oppose joint broadcasting ventures with Western 'propagandists', and no doubt there will be more angry phone calls from veteran Communists. But the series looks set to become almost as popular as The Rich Also Cry, the Mexican soap opera to which Russians were glued last year.

There is one problem: for a programme which intends to make considerable use of public comment, the telephone system is not adequate. Callers from Moscow should be able to get through if they have the patience to wait for one of the two phones made available by Radio Russia to be free. But 'interested', 'puzzled' or 'disgusted' of Siberia will be lucky to get a line to the capital.

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