As a guest of the conservative Heritage Foundation during Boris Yeltsin's recent trip to Washington, Vladimir Shumeiko made all the usual stops on the capitalist tour. He walked past Georgetown's trendy boutiques. He went to a suburban shopping mall. He toured a Safeway supermarket.
Shumeiko, an elected people's deputy of the Russian Republic, did something more serious as well. He rolled up his sleeves at a series of think-tank seminars on the nitty-gritty details of privatizing coal mines, converting military plants to civilian use, and mobilizing capital to dismantle 70 years of a communist economy. "From theory we're switching to practice," he says. "Economic reform is now a war of laws."
If Soviet squabbles over the country's economic future look like a battle, U. S. academics are only too happy to enlist. While Western leaders grapple with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in London, economists, political scientists, and advice-givers from Harvard to Stanford are elbowing their way into the Soviet economic debate. They are consulting with the Kremlin and the governments of Soviet republics, exchanging visits with Soviet lawmakers, and drafting new laws on property ownership. The Soviets contribute some expenses, but the big payoff for the American think tanks is that their efforts give them an edge in the competition for U. S. foundation grants.
ABOUT-FACE. Advice is coming from some peculiar places, such as conservative U. S. think tanks that only recently were pondering the Soviet threat. The Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, for example, made its reputation in the 1960s by positing that the U. S. could win a nuclear war. Now, it's doing an 18-month study to guide the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia toward a market economy. And in April, Stanford University's Hoover Institution agreed to advise Yeltsin's government on how to carry out a rapid transition to a market economy.
Edward P. Lazear, a University of Chicago economist and a member of the Hoover team, says that a plan for privatizing slaughterhouse operations through worker buyouts was virtually translated into Russian law from Hoover papers. "We're almost like congressional aides to them," he says.
But for now, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government is the star of the go-go Soviet-advice business. A team led by Kennedy scholar Graham T. Allison Jr. and Soviet economist Grigory A. Yavlinksy scored a coup by floating a six-year plan for a "grand bargain" that would offer massive Western aid in exchange for Soviet reforms, such as liberalizing prices. Neither the Soviet nor Western governments have shown more than polite interest in the plan, but it could weigh heavily over the London summit.
Although the Bush Administration blanches at any big aid proposals, officials say they found the Harvard effort useful. For one thing, Harvard's talk of hefty dollar commitments made the Administration's modest plans for offering Moscow technical advice and trade credits look far less controversial, especially to the Republican right.
PR BONUS. The think tanks may be earning reams of publicity and a steady stream of grants, but there are risks, too. "There's a lot of money to be made in this area, but the idea that anybody in the West can provide the answer to the reform riddle is profoundly dangerous," warns one Administration Soviet expert.
Indeed, most U. S. think tanks, Kennedy included, lack deep expertise in the Soviet economy. Some critics claim that having institutions such as Hoover work for republics can only exacerbate tensions between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Some Washington officials fear that by talking about aid, think tanks will raise expectations among Soviets that can't be met. Soviet KGB chief Vladimir A. Kryuchkov even claims that U. S. proposals are a Central Intelligence Agency plot to infiltrate the Soviet hierarchy.
Such sensitivities have prompted the Bush Administration to quash some links. When the government of Estonia asked the State Dept. to arrange a Rand Corp. study of security matters in the restive Baltic republics, alarms went off, since Rand does classified research for the Pentagon. The U. S. nixed the scheme.
There's another gritty reality, too. No matter what economic scheme U. S. academics dream up, the Soviets still face some very hard political decisions. Think-tank free-lancing in Soviet affairs may be on a fast track, but actual reform is still slow in coming.