Friday, October 17, 2008

Same crisis, different reactions

I’m back in Moscow, the first visit here since I left the country at the end of February. I can’t see a lot of change. The traffic jams as bad as ever. It took me two hours to travel from the airport to the apartment where I’m staying, a distance of about 16 kilometers. One difference between here & Azerbaijan, however, is that the financial crisis has registered with people here in a way that seems mostly lacking in Azerbaijan.

Perhaps this is because Azerbaijan is less tightly connected to world markets. Of course, it is connected – quite dependent on the oil consumption in the developed world, of course. But financial activity does not occur on anything near the scale like Moscow or New York.

Another explanation could be that Russia has suffered so much from past financial crises, and so is sensitized to them. Ten years ago, I left Russia in the midst of the ruble crisis of 1998. The stores were emptied of goods that could be horded. The bank machines stopped working for days. I remember lending a friend – who was a fairly prominent film director – some spare cash, because he found himself flat broke & with no means of getting cash.

Within a few minutes of my arrival this time, my Russian hosts asked me about the global financial crisis, joking that the Americans are to blame.

Of course, that’s not much of a joke. But they smiled.

Today I met with the leader of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, to discuss a new training program for journalists. It was a fine & fruitful meeting. Nice guy. Well-connected journalist. Chubais returned his phone call in the middle of our conversation. My only objection to the conversation were the cheap cigarettes he chain smoked. About five minutes before my departure, he thought to open a window. Actually, I don’t think it would have made a difference to me if he were chain-smoking the most expensive cigarettes. It was still pretty damn smoky in there.

I’ll be attending a conference with a bunch of Russian journalists in a couple of days. I can expect some more smoky rooms.