`Poet of Perestroika' Seeks Investors
INTERVIEW: ALEXANDER GELMAN
MALIBU, CALIF. — SOVIET glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) started it rolling in 1985. Now cold-war warming has heightened it: the Soviet export of economic advisers, government functionaries, and university intellectuals. They crisscross the United States with dual purposes: (1) to soak up the nuances of private enterprise for the coming revamp of Soviet economics; (2) to set a fire under US companies to get going on joint ventures and outright investment in Soviet businesses. Object: Help the struggling nation lurch forward into the modern business world.
"We need everything, the simplest items of everyday life," says Alexander Gelman, one of the more prominent of such visitors in recent months. "Even such things as can openers. You could sell tens of millions in a few days because everyone in the country wants one.... VCRs ... cars ... there are thousands of such items."
Economist, journalist, and one of the foremost modern Soviet playwrights, Mr. Gelman has been speaking about the demise of communism to business students at Pepperdine University's School of Business and Management here.
"It has been a 100 percent failure," he says. "We spent 70 years proving this to ourselves and the whole world. Now we must look to design something entirely new from the best socialist and democratic models."
Known as the "Poet of Perestroika" for his many plays needling Soviet central mismanagement under the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Gelman has since been an economic adviser to both Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his rival, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Gelman recently resigned from the Communist Party Central Committee to protest repressive actions in the Baltic republics.
"He gained a national reputation for dramatizing the horrors of waste in central management," says Nadya Peterson, professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
Besides lecturing and reading from his poems and plays - most of which criticize state control of business enterprise - Gelman has also been meeting with business leaders in southern California.
"I'm telling them and all American businessmen to bypass the central government of Gorbachev and go directly to the 15 Soviet republics. It is very possible the central machinery will either keep changing dramatically or disintegrate ... while the republics will always be there."
Gelman says the system of sister cities, which the Soviets set up between their own metropolitan areas and those of Europe and the US after World War II, have created the most-lasting relationships and business bonds - surviving even the worst of the cold war. Private construction contracts and trade agreements between such cities as Leningrad and Los Angeles, Duluth (Minn.) and Petrovsk, Long Beach (Calif.) and Sochi have provided a stability in relations never known between the central governments.
"Whatever problems anyone had they could deal right with the mayors of either city," he says.
The central debate in the Soviet Union now, he says, is one that Americans don't understand: the speed with which the state should move toward reinstatement of private ownership of industry and agriculture. By getting caught up in the political maneuvering of Yeltsin and Gorbachev, outsiders can miss out on important opportunities.
Gelman says there are dozens of Soviet cities, such as Sverdlovsk in the Ural mountains, where the business climate is far more attractive than in Leningrad and Moscow, the two cities widely regarded by Americans as the country's most sophisticated. There has been much recent relaxation on the system of registration known as propiska, in which the Soviet government had severely restricted relocation by citizens.
"The lifting of such barriers have made these places very, very ripe for co-ventures and co-productions with international investors," he says. Aiding the process, he adds, is a new generation of leaders. Korea, Japan, and Germany have been much more aggressive than the US in these areas, he says.
Gelman says everyone knows the largest hurdle to such investing is that the Russian ruble is not convertible on the world currency market. But he predicts that hurdle will be cleared in two to three years. Until then, fortunes are still to be made. He cites the example of McDonald's Corporation, which built a restaurant in Moscow and has used its earnings to expand in other cities.