In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), maps lied and no two were alike. Whole towns were incorrectly located, omitted altogether, minimized, exaggerated or distorted. The confluence of rivers, the forking of roads and the damp darkness of tunnels were all subjected to the vagaries of official paranoia. Biblically, the mountains were made to dance. Of the lot, Moscow's maps were the most fictional, leading innocents from abroad down the garden path to blind alleys and dead ends. Intended to misdirect foreigners and citizens alike, these maps had a most Kafkaesque effect on daily life.
This was but a small part of Maskirovka (Russian for "The Deception"), a conscious decision manifested in an open and authorized policy to subvert language itself, to divert topology, to disinform, to transform reality into an inane hall of mirrors. A part of the pathologizing process called "Communism," it did not stop at maps. Everything was falsified: production figures were inflated, dates were altered, old photographs retouched, alliances and enmities swapped. It fostered a nightmarish state of mind replete with seemingly capricious twists and turns and an "Alice in Wonderland" logic (or the lack thereof).
With all meaning usurped, language lost both its function and its structure. It metastasized.
The incubus of Communism may have died, but it left its demon seeds cocooned in the brains of its unfortunate vassals. The Maskirovka is alive and well today. All inflows and outflows of information in most of the "countries in transition" are to be considered dangerous. Governments, firms and individuals do their best to conceal and, where they fail, to misinform.
Statistics, in particular, have been elevated above damned lies to a delirious state of Pavolvian mendaciousness. Everything, all over Central and Eastern Europe, is falsely reported - from GDP to the number of workers in the state administration.
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a host of other sanctuaries of smug mediocrity turn a blind eye to what they know to be brobdingnagian acts of skulduggery and the forgery of data by government officials. Hidden reserves, off-budget income and debts are all ignored - all serve to distort the picture to the common satisfaction of benefactor and beneficiary.
Governments, in turn, direct their attention away from the shoddy accounting practices of the shady businesses that pass for a private sector in most countries in this never-ending, and convenient, period of transition.
Businesses in these mob infested and corrupt shell countries are engaged more in evading taxes and cooking books than in pursuing profits and clientele. Parallel underground systems of production and accounting divert resources from the official universe into the Hades of the black and criminal economy. Money laundering, outright theft, thuggery and mafia-like codes of conduct typify these "enterprises."
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It is Maskirovka embodied at the level of the firm, the hellish manifestation of years of sabotage and hostility towards the state and its avaricious officers.
Then there are the individuals. In Communist times, lying was often a survival tactic, dissembling a mechanism of successful adaptation. In the simulacrum that passed for polity, deforming oneself was the only method of staying in shape. To be a denizen of Communism was a profession, not an affiliation, and profitable habits die hard.
To this very day, people of all ranks steal from their workplace, falsify their expense accounts, cheat each other with carpe diem abandon and, occasionally, with glee. They think nothing of ignoring promises, forgetting their commitments or violating contracts. They are in a state of war, subject to unnatural selection.
This obscene traffic in lack of probity is amplified when dealing with foreigners.
I have often been accused of spying, and resorted to the classical defense of having displayed no interest in matters military. Finally, though, I understood that reporting what one saw and believed to be the truth is considered an act of treason. Informing the world about the true state of affairs in Russia, Kosovo or Macedonia was, to Russians, Kosovars and Macedonians, a deplorable act of surrendering official secrets.
This is so even if one's reports deal with the dairy industry, the state of the telecommunications infrastructure or the relationship between the genders. The "outside" needs to be kept in the dark, and CEE and Balkan societies engage in gigantic, informal conspiracies against the "outsiders" in which an elaborate Potemkin reality is manufactured and laboriously staged to fool each visitor or short term do-gooder.
Foreigners who stay longer are expected to conform and assume this bond of silence. Violating it is unforgivable.
Just as the false maps of the Maskirovka adversely effected the efficiency of Soviet produce distribution systems, trafficking in wrong data today causes misallocation of economic resources and the erosion of that indispensable social glue - trust. Decision-making is based on make-believe, steps taken backfire and listless inaction beckons.
From the kickshaw economies of Central Europe to the chintzy mob operations that pass for states in the Balkan, innovation, trading, value and capital formation, long term planning, education and infrastructure are all crippled by the offspring of the Maskirovka. Without a handle on reality, it is a world devoid of orientation, a path without direction, thaumaturgy gone berserk.
Perhaps this is the ultimate victory of Maskirovka - the confabulated political entities that mushroomed after its official banishment. To say one thing and do another -its surest legacy- has become the cornerstone of these post-Communist lucifugous beings. Presenting façades devoid of depth or content -its basic tenet- has been adopted with alacrity by both its former adherents and its detractors in the West. To lie, to falsify, to cheat, to steal -its four commandments- are observed with vehemence all over the vast area it once ruled.
Thus metamorphosed, Maskirovka is back, its vocabulary updated and clad in the new garbs of Capitalism, its new-found ideology. Travelling more comfortably in Mercedes and more speedily through the proliferating and venal media, it suppresses its schadenfreude smirk.
Sam Vaknin, 12 June 2000
The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.