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Íslendingur hafði afgerandi áhrif á stefnu Rússlands í efnahags- og bankamálum

22. október 2012 | Jóhannes Björn

Atburðarásin minnti á skáldsögu eftir John le Carré. Rússland var tæknilega gjaldþrota í árslok 1998 og yfirmaður rússnesku hagfræðiakademíunnar í Moskvu, dr. Dmitri Lvov, var á leið til New York með hatt í hönd til þess að biðja um fyrirgreiðslu. Rússar gerðu sér fulla grein fyrir að stórt dollaralán kæmi með skilmálum um að þeir opnuðu hagkerfið og hleyptu erlendum bönkum og fjárfestingafyrirtækjum (eða leppum þeirra) inn í landið. Ekkert gleður banka meira en að komast inn á auðugan hráefnamarkað, þar sem hægt er að töfra fram ný lán út á veð í raunverulegum verðmætum og uppskera vexti í marga áratugi. Í þessu tilfelli var freistandi að komast í færi við gífurlegt magn mikilvægustu hráefna heimsins, olíu og málma. Það var líka mjög mikilvægt fyrir ákveðna hagsmunaaðila að dollarinn, viðmiðunargjaldmiðill heimsins, næði betri fótfestu á efnahagssvæði austurblokkarinnar—svæði sem allir vissu að ætti eftir að framleiða miklu meiri verðmæti í framtíðinni eftir áratuga stöðnun kommúnismans.

En örlaganornirnar voru byrjaðar að spinna og Bretar, sem höfðu önnur markmið og aðrar áherslur heldur en Bandaríkin og AGS, gripu óvænt tækifæri sem bauðst til þess að blanda sér í málið. Dr. Lvov hafði ákveðið að millilenda í London og gisti hjá vinum sínum í vesturhluta borgarinnar. Þótt dr. Lvov væri ekki mjög þekktur utan Rússlands, þá vissu bresk stjórnvöld að hann var skólafélagi og æskuvinur Yevgeny Primakov, sem Boris Yeltsin hafði skipað í embætti forsætisráðherra þremur mánuðum fyrr. Bretar gerðu því allt til þess að greiða götu dr. Lvov. Hann ræddi við marga áhrifamenn og kom þeim á óvart með heilsteyptum hugmyndum (að þeirra mati) varðandi framtíðaruppbyggingu rússneska hagkerfisins. Þegar öllu er á botninn hvolft þá snúast samskipti þjóða mest um viðskiptahagsmuni og Bretum virðast hafa verið mest í mun að slegin yrði skjaldborg um réttaröryggi samninga sem útlendingar gerðu við rússneska aðila.

Síðasti áfangi þessa merkilega máls kom svo þegar íslenskur hagfræðingur, Gunnar Tómasson, sem hafði flogið til London, átti óformlegan hádegisverðarfund með dr. Lvov ásamt nokkrum öðrum hagfræðingum. Gunnar, sérfræðingur í málefnum AGS eftir að hafa starfað fyrir sjóðinn í yfir 20 ár, var látinn sitja næst dr. Lvov og þeir voru með túlk á milli sín. Í stuttu máli þá sannfærði Gunnar hann um að breyta áformum Rússlands. Frekar en að snúa sér til AGS og dollarabankanna, þá ættu Rússar að byggja bankakerfið upp innanfrá. Dr. Lvov hætti við ferðina til New York, flaug til Rússlands og hóf endurreisnarstarfið. Fyrir þessa frammistöðu kallaði annar hagfræðingur, Geoffrey Gardiner, Gunnar skarpasta hagfræðing heimsins (“the clearest-thinking economist in the world”) á Facebook síðu sinni 17. september 2012.

Gunnar tilheyrir hópi hagfræðinga, nokkurs konar hugmyndabanka, sem gengur undir nafninu Gang8. Einn þeirra, Chris Meakin, skrifaði eftirminnilega grein um þennan sögulega atburð:

How Russia’s economy was transformed in London: BSR economics editor Christopher Meakin explains the remarkable events of Tuesday 1 December 1998

For seven difficult years following the fall of Communism in 1991, Russia’s economy lurched uncertainly into the modern, demanding world of global capitalism. This process was not helped by the all-too-keen Americans hoping to extend their influential and profitable dollar empire far into the East.

The man who put a stop to all that was Dr. Dmitri Lvov, head of the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. It all happened very rapidly because of two remarkable meetings he held in London on Tuesday 1 December 1998 - just over twelve years ago. Lvov was originally intending to travel to New York to plead for more support for the emerging Russian economy, but in the light of what he learnt in London, he changed his mind.

Dmitri Lvov had simply decided to stop over with friends in Richmond, a suburb to the west of London, to help alleviate the very long jet lag between Moscow and New York. But while he was in London he also asked to meet some senior British civil servants to explore British attitudes to economics in general and to the new Russia in particular. That meeting took place on the morning of Tuesday 1 December 1998. Then in the same afternoon he had a long meeting with representatives of the Gang of Eight, an independent transatlantic economic think tank.

Once Britain’s Foreign Office found out the influential position Dr Lvov held in Moscow, they pulled out all the stops. The man who organised his meeting with British civil servants was John Scarlett, later to become head of MI6. At the insistence of the writer, then and still a member of the executive of Britain’s Economic Research Council, the meeting was held under ‘Chatham House Rules.’ This British formula for an off-the-record encounter meant that no formal minute or record of the meeting was taken, and while its participants were free to act on the information they obtained, they were not allowed to cite its source.

The meeting was held in the private apartment on Piccadilly of Mr Damon de Laszlo, chairman of the Economic Research Council. Four top civil servants were present, two from the Department of Trade, one from the Foreign Office and one from the Cabinet Office, the office of the Prime Minister. Free from the restraints of any formal record of the meeting, the questions were to the point, very testing and very friendly. “Dr Lvov, when are you going to get a workable Law of Contract in Russia?” and “Dr Lvov, when are you going to get yourselves an efficient banking industry in Russia?”

Lvov’s answers were thoughtful, comprehensive and very impressive. He succeeded in changing Whitehall’s entire appreciation of Russia’s economic ambitions and that afternoon (according to one of the DTI officials who had been present at the morning meeting) “the communication lines between the Foreign Office in Whitehall and the British Embassy in Moscow were burning hot” as British interpretation of Russia’s position was updated, markedly for the better. Dr Lvov had certainly made his mark in London.

After a 45 minute courtesy meeting with the member of the British royal family who maintains closest ties with Russia, Prince Michael of Kent, Dr Dmitri Lvov was then entertained to a long lunch at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, by the three founder members of the Gang of Eight - Geoffrey Gardiner, Gunnar Tomasson and the present writer - and its Norwegian moderator Arno Daastol. The economic think tank, only formally constituted in September of that year, was already making its influence felt as it has done behind the scenes ever since. Unlike most such organisations it does not seek any publicity, but its transatlantic musings available through the Internet are nowadays followed with great attention in many parts of the globe.

The key Gang of Eight conversation took place between Tomasson and Lvov; they were deliberately seated at the end of the table with St Petersburg-based interpreter Tatiana Roskoshnaya between them. For the meeting, Gunnar Tomasson had flown in especially from Washington; he is one of the world’s most experienced economists, with degrees from Manchester University and Harvard.

A key part of his subsequent career had been as Iceland’s staff member on the secretariat of the International Monetary Fund, where he was the desk officer responsible for reordering the economies of South East Asia in the aftermath to the Vietnam War. However while working at the IMF as a European, he developed a healthy distrust of its over-close relationship with Washington’s State Department. As he explained it in June 1998 : “As a former IMF staff member (1966-1987) I have long been of the view that the IMF is and has been essentially useless - and positively harmful of late - after the break-down of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. For the past 25-30 years, there has been no effective constraint on liquidity creation by the international financial system.”

Less than ten years later, Tomasson’s 1998 misgivings about the lack of control of liquidity creation within the banking system of the West, especially in the USA and in the UK, was to be proved right in spectacular fashion. It was neither the first time, nor the last time, that economic predictions by the Gang of Eight proved right. They were highlighting the problems with sub-prime lending in the USA long before the whole thing exploded in summer 2007.

This was the academic background to Tomasson’s advice for Lvov in December 1998. He, too, suggested that Russia’s economic salvation should not be pursued through closer ties with the US dollar, but rather through Russia developing a sound banking and financial system for itself within its own frontiers. Because Dr Lvov had heard exactly the same message from both senior British civil servants in the morning, and then from independent transatlantic economists that same afternoon, the effect on him was profound.

Dmitri Lvov decided to end his travels in London and scrapped his intended onward journey to New York. No longer was the US dollar central to his plans for revitalising the Russian economy, as it had been when he left Moscow. With remarkable agility of mind he quickly changed his whole perception of how events might now be steered. So he instead returned directly to Moscow to seek a private meeting with Yevgeny Primakov, who had been appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin just three months previously.

Lvov and Primakov had known one another since boyhood - they had been at primary school together - and the bond of trust between them was extremely strong. This relationship was already known to the British intelligence services, which is why so much effort was made to provide Lvov with what he wanted while in London that crucial day in 1998.

A similar bond of personal friendship existed between the writer in London and John Scarlett, then in charge of the Russian desk at Britain’s Foreign Office. Their two sons were then close friends at the same school.

All the events of Tuesday 1 December 1998 thus rested on a series of fortunate coincidences, not least that as recently as September of that year Yevgeny Primakov had become Prime Minister of Russia at almost exactly the same moment that the transatlantic group of economists, the Gang of Eight, was being founded in London.

Yet it is on such fortunate coincidences, rather than through any grand design or preconceived plans, that the history of economic progress has almost always been built. Future historians might even argue that the unofficial events in London of Tuesday 1 December 1998 were more influential in shaping world affairs than half a dozen meetings of the over-publicised, under-achieving G-20 summits. For it are the men and women working behind the scenes, out of the media limelight, which typically make things, happen.