Page 4, 20th December 1991

20th December 1991
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Page 4, 20th December 1991 — Russia's darkest hours
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Russia's darkest hours

JOHN BATTLE MP

AS freezing fog seized up Britain, we got a taste of the sub-zero temperatures of an arctic winter.

Perhaps we ought to spare a thought for those who endure it for a longer season.

Last week it was reported in passing that whole sections or the Moscow municipal heating system have had to be shut down as a result of the financial crisis and apartments, offices and public buildings quickly turned cold. Trying to live in sub-zero temperatures without heating demands super-human endurance the lives of the elderly, the young, the sick and the weak are seriously at risk.

Those who predicted the collapse or the Soviet economy, the lack of food in the shops, the escalating inflation rate, the devaluation of the rouble, and now proposed price increases to jolt it towards the market economy haven't tended to spell out that hunger, starvation and death from cold for many people is a real possibility.

While the focus has been on the rapidly-changing political scene the break-up of the Soviet empire and the future role of President Gorbachev the likelihood of hunger, poverty and death has been disregarded. The west's justified concern with the nuclear weapon responsibilities of newlyindependent states has led to an interesting appeal. There are demands for a central, coordinating authority, a need for one body to be in control, "so that we know who we are dealing with", as President Bush's aide put it.

In other words, when it comes to nuclear weapons there is a demand for a central control or at least a coordinating plan.

But when it comes to addressing the threat of mass poverty and hunger, then it's a question of acccepting the inevitable.

The diMculty with tabloid or highly-condensed interpretations of political and economic events is that they tend to be binary, to be for or against, setting one against another with no space for any relation in between.

We must either be "for the market" or "the plan", for "capitalism" and against "state communism", for "private" against "public" provision.

In these terms, the new world order has superseded the break up of Soviet-style communism. The cold war is over and the free market economy with its insistence on the private sector, opposition to the public sector, stress on open trade, and pluralistic democracy, now holds sway. The concept of economic

planning is routinely condemned by business leaders and Conservative politicians yet this condemnation is regularly exposed as a fundamental hypocrisy.

Subsidies for key industries and commerical interests tax breaks, bail outs, price supports, protectionist import quotas, exploration incentives, research and development ' grants are all part of government intervention strategies in the world of the socalled free market economies.

As most private companies spend so much of their time on "corporate planning" now a key item on any boardroom agenda to set the "free" market against the plan seems a piece of deliberately perverse hypocrisy.

At best, paradoxically setting up a "free market" requires careful strategic planning.

Given all her ideological zeal and political power, Mrs Thatcher only managed to privatise eight per cent of the United Kingdom economy In 13 years.

The scale of the free market challenge to 82 per cent of the Soviet economy is therefore astronomical.

The sheer timescale is daunting. But accepting that economic planning is central even to free market systems, the key question emerges at whose expense is that planning? Who is sacrificed in the plan, and who pays the price?

Historical reality demonstrates that it is the poor, those with the weakest political and economic muscle who are usually sacrificed to free market plans. As the break-up of the Soviet Union presents new political and security challenges to the world, urgent economic plans that include strategies for eliminating poverty must not be neglected.

If they are, again the world will simply watch on television millions of citizens of the Soviet Union die.

John Battle is the Labour Member of Parliament for Leedc West




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