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By John Helmer

The newsletter from the US Embassy warned recently that middle-aged American males should be on the lookout for a dangerous thief in Moscow who puts them to sleep before he or she steals their wallets, and any other property that can be carried off.

At the start of the last century in the US, the term Mickey Finn referred to the lowlife trick of administering a stupefying drug to a target in a bar, and then accompanying the victim to his home nearby. An Irish name was used, because in those days in downtown New York, the prostitutes were Irish.

In Moscow the drug clonidine is used by Russians of either male or female sex, who drop it in liquid or pill form into the drink of the unsuspecting target. After about thirty minutes, the drug lowers blood pressure, inducing unconsciousness. Watch out for Anatoly Finn.

But middle-aged American males aren’t the only ones in Moscow who are susceptible to sleep-inducing concoctions which are the preliminaries to grand larceny. Take, for example, the Russian drug known colloquially as Reform. To hear the investment bankers describe it last week, the removal of that notorious temperance enforcer Victor Gerashchenko from the Central Bank of Russia will soon allow his successor Anatoly Chubais — oops, Sergei Ignatiev — to implement a programme of banking reform. Troika Dialog, the Moscow investment bank, celebrated Ignatiev as “honest, modest and hardworking. He holds modern economic views and abhors half-baked knee-jerk decisions.” Such a good man, Troika Dialog adds, “reportedly owes his elevation to [his] last two positions largely to Anatoly Chubais.” As soon as the two of them have purged the Central Bank of Gerashchenko proteges, Ignatiev will make “progress on banking reform as soon as he has recruited a new [team].”

“Surely an improvement on the worst central banker in history” claimed The Economist, just managing to remember that it was Jeffrey Sachs, the worst American financial advisor in history, who coined that description of Gerashchenko.

Sachs has put out so many bulletins over the years urging gullible imbibers to drink whatever concoction Chubais had put together, it’s surprising that they and their friends at the Moscow Times haven’t recommended this one. Wait a minute — they do. “The change,” said the Times on March 18, “may also herald the kickstart of reforms at the Central Bank.” O sleep, O blissful sleep, ohhhh…zzzz.

Ignatiev hadn’t even left his post at the Finance Ministry before the old larceny invented by Ignatiev’s patrons Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais had started again. You would have to be unconscious not to have noticed that wage payments controlled by Ignatiev’s Ministry stopped in February. According to the State Statistics Committee, total wage arrears climbed to Rb35 billion, a 17% rise since January, and the highest level reached in more than a year. Wages unpaid by private companies grew 4%, compared to January. But federal government debts to workers jumped 19%. That is the largest one-month jump since Putin took over the presidency from Boris Yeltsin.

It’s hard to believe that Chubais and Gaidar put Putin to sleep while they connived with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to replace Gerashchenko with Ignatiev. If so, Putin is certain to wake up when his approval rating takes the dive it always does after wage arrears climb. The last time Putin suffered a sharp fall in popularity followed by one month an 8% increase in Finance Ministry-ordered wage arrears. For every 1% increase in the arrears, Putin’s rating fell by 0.5%. That was between July 1 and August 31 in the year 2000. It’s thus quite possible that by next month, as the impact of the non-payment of wages spreads throughout the country, Putin’s rating will fall by almost 10 percentage points.

That’s the unpleasant moment of awakening, with the hangover of the drug called Reform. Beware Anatoly Finn.

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