Potemkin Capitalism


The conversion to a capitalist system has devastated former Soviet republics. In 1997 I visited the newly independent Republic of Moldova, sandwiched between the Ukraine and Romania. As in Russia, essential services have collapsed. Life expectancy in Moldova is plummeting, the average wage is just $40 a month, and half of the country’s 4.5 million people live on less than $1 a day. Winters are bitter, but the government can’t afford to heat hospitals, schools, or other public buildings. The inhumanity of all this comes home to me when a Moldovan woman who works for an American aid project tells me of a friend whose newborn froze to death in the hospital’s maternity ward. The mother didn’t complain. After decades of communism, the woman tells me, “Moldovans are resigned to their suffering.”

Incredibly, in the midst of this deprivation, American experts teach the basics of capitalism to those strong enough to seize market opportunities. In the center of the capital, the government has built a pristine stock exchange, equipped with state-of-the-art computers and trading software. The idea is that if Moldova looks like a capitalist country, it will act like one. Not so. The exchange is moribund because demand for Moldovan stocks is minuscule; perversely, most of the action comes from organized criminals and tax evaders who, through a loophole in the law regarding cash purchases, can launder their money through stock purchases.

“Our American experiment in Moldova isn’t a success,” says Vince Morabito, an American aid worker in the country. “We’ve exported our lack of social conscience.”