Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Strange Doings in Ukraine

I’ve returned from a quick visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, where I was a guest at the 10th Anniversary Conference and celebration of the EERC MA Program. EERC – the Economic Education and Research Consortium – is an independent western-funded program within Ukraine’s National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. I think it’s safe to say this program (in which I used to teach) has been extremely successful in promoting good economics. A number of our students have gone on to complete PhDs in economics, including several from U. Michigan and Michigan State University. Some are back in Ukraine teaching, others are working in Ukrainian ministries and private firms, one even has a position in Aumann’s Center for the Study of Rationality in Jerusalem.

OK, enough bragging.

On my arrival in Kyiv I was picked up by the driver from the program and taken to my hotel in the center of town. Immediately I sensed something wasn’t quite right – looking around Maidan Nezalezhnosti I saw men in kilts everywhere. What, did Scotland invade? As it turned out, yes, indeed Scotland had invaded, or Scottish football fans, at least. Scotland had played Ukraine, lost 2-0, but the Scots seemed to be in fairly good spirits – they all had praise for the high quality and low price of Ukrainian beer, and seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. And the Ukrainians seemed happy enough to have them wandering around.

The opening of the conference featured Francis Fukuyama and Robert Engle as keynote speakers. As I approached the conference venue, I noticed a small group (50?) of, umm, students? gathered, waving Che flags and homemade signs that said, in English, "Capitalism must die!" Apparently they had tried presenting Fukuyama with a copy of Marx’s ""Das Kapital," but were instead mocked by one of the Ukrainians escorting him: "we don’t need to read about Marxism – we lived that bullshit."

The interesting thing to me, aside from the peacefulness of the group (of personal interest as I had to walk amongst them to enter the conference) was the Che flags. Che wasn’t and isn’t a CPSU icon. The old communists (who were out in force the next day protesting some obscure Ukrainian issues) don’t wave Che flags. These are some new kids on the block, and assuming they are actually Ukrainians, I suppose they are trying to position themselves as Ukraine’s left once Ukraine joins Europe, supplanting the old Soviet dinosaurs. I am guessing they haven’t much appeal.

Inside, Fukuyama gave a very interesting talk with great-sounding big ideas that, once you look at them carefully. make little sense – but interesting anyway. Engle’s talk didn’t make much sense to me, but the next day he repeated it, but without omitting the technical details and omitting all the photos of him receiving the Nobel, and it proved to be pretty good.

But most interesting was the announcement that EERC is becoming the independent (of NaUKMA) Kyiv School of Economics and greatly expending its programs. How can this be, since budget issues were always a major constraint? Easy – The Viktor Pinchuk Foundation is bankrolling the expansion. Oligarch Viktor Pinchuk? Ex-President Kuchma’s son-in-law? Partner of Rinat Akhmetov in the first Kryvoristahl privatization deal, the corrupt giveaway that was eventually overturned? Yes, that Viktor Pinchuk (he’s the one who told off the Che supporters, it turns out). Economics makes strange bedfellows.

Far be it from me to judge anyone by their sources of funding. So long as the economic work of the program remains independent, this is a fine thing. In the topsy-turvy world of Ukrainian politics, where the everyone’s stripes seem to change with the seasons, this may even be possible. I hope so. The obvious danger is that Pinchuk might imagine he’s purchased an economics program; and I think the EERC/KSE board is too honest and too much oriented towards economics to tailor teaching and research to fit someone’s private agenda. It’s easy to imagine a future parting of the ways and consequent financial debacle for the program.

All of my Ukrainian friends asked me what I thought of all the changes in Kyiv, but to be honest, I don’t think it has changed so much. The changes I did see were those of economic growth – many more cars, more people, more construction, more stores, and more signage than anyone could possibly read. The food at the Tequila House has gone downhill, but Cossack Mamai is still great. Prices of music CDs have gone up about 4 times since 2001 (I suppose because they appear not to be pirated) but are still cheap. And the Scots are quite right about the beer.

The most interesting address, for me, was from former Ukrainian P.M. Yekhanurov, who argued for the importance of classical liberal ideas in Ukraine. While this isn’t quite what EERC is about, with its focus on positive economics, it's still true that good positive economics supports classical liberalism. YCertainly the communist-socialist alternative has nothing to gain from better economics. Yekhanurov is right. And anything that helps promote classical liberalism is a good thing.

Ahhhh, that is why you were not around in Tbilisi. Now I understand. Congrats, the work on your front seems to be really substantial! NV
I would like to have attended Tbilisi, but can only do so much running around. If you have a report/impressions available somewhere, I'd be interested.
well, there is a CD with all the speeches and I have a couple of pictures. TGP as Master of Ceremony is quite something: Swiss Time + German discipline, you get the picture. The entire thing was just perfect. Paata did a great work. N.
Nathalie -- is there some way we can see the pictures? Where? So far as I know you don't have a blog or website.

I gather the CD must be available through CATO.
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