Moscow can do as it likes, just let Rostov mind its own business

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The author is executive secretary of the East-West Co-operation Committee of the European Institute for the Media in Dusseldorf, and founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Regional Development in Moscow.

A DELEGATION from Rostov-on-Don, the unofficial capital of the south of Russia, recently visited its twin city of Dortmund. The group included local officials and several businessmen - all self-confident, relaxed and in no way resembling people from a crisis-torn country with mounting political tensions.

'How is life back there?' I asked. 'Fine,' said Vadim Polovnikov, chairman of a chemical company. 'I opened a bank recently.'

'A bank? With 30 per cent inflation a month? You must be crazy]'

'Perhaps,' he said, 'but do you know of a commercial bank that has gone bankrupt in recent years?' I did not.

The delegation dismissed the crisis in Moscow politics as 'just an argument about who rides in longer limousines'. 'This is not a conflict betwen the old and new,' said Valery Musienko, chairman of the city council. 'It is impossible to return to the old system, and nobody wants that. Rostov has big defence enterprises, such as a helicopter plant, which have adjusted to the new conditions. Do you think their director wants to start taking orders again? The arguments are not about goals, but about means. There can be different opinions about how to reach the same destination.'

Their attitude to the clash between the legislative and executive branches of Russia's federal government was dictated by their own posts. When you have a city, district or company to run, you tend to regard those who run the state in terms of whether they make your job easier, not in terms of ideology.

Mr Musienko insisted he was prepared to accept any distribution of authority, as long as he knew who was responsible for what, had his own sphere of competence clearly defined, and was sure that this would be a durable arrangement. 'We are confused. There are laws adopted by the federal parliament, there are presidential decrees, and there are government instructions. We do not know what to follow. The disputes that the city council has with the mayor of Rostov often derive from conflicts in federal legislation.'

The delegation's members were fed up with promises of a new democratic order to come. And in Rostov, a thriving commercial city before 1917 and one where the commercial spirit has survived Communism, people tend to be judged not by their intentions but by their performance: if you can't deliver, you have only yourself to blame. Now, they have almost stopped apportioning blame; they have simply ceased to take people 'up there' seriously.

Perhaps the main achievement of the liberal economic policies of the past year is that most people have learnt to mind their own business and proceed 'each man for himself', which is a necessary, if ugly, component of early capitalism. In return, all they ask is that the routine they have developed for survival is not disrupted by the continual imposition of new rules. They are moving towards the market economy as best they can, and the last thing they want is to be dragged into a personality struggle in Moscow. Other regions may be different, but one thing is clear. Despite all the hardships Russia has suffered in the past years, and despite all the turmoil in the capital, Russia remains miraculously stable. It remains only to wonder how long the inertia of the provinces can absorb the destructive drive of irresponsible national politics.

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