U.S.S.R.: riddle without an answer

Georgie Anne Geyer

June 11, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Harriman, N.Y. -- GRIGORY YAVLINSKY looked tired, and with good reason. The fashionable young Russian economist had rushed to the big foreign policy conference here to take part in a 9 p.m. session. Then he was to be driven back to Washington on an all-night Russian version of Paul Revere's ride to meet with President Bush first thing the next morning.

"What is going on in the Soviet Union is the death of a system," he began, speaking at Arden House, the glorious mountaintop mansion built early in the century by the Harriman family. "First of all, we have begun a fight for a civil society, the kind of fight which started in Europe in the 1600s and lasted 200 years at least . . . "

Then he summed up the purpose of all the rushing around between Americans and Russians this last week. "It is too hard for someone to play chess alone," he said, illustrating that it is still not too hard for the Russians to speak in riddles.

For that is what the last week of feverish Russian meetings and petitions here has been: not the "grand bargain" but the "grand riddle."

First, Mikhail Gorbachev begged the United States and the Western powers in effect to finance the dismantling of the communist system. President Bush, who has been notably prudent in talking about American aid to the Soviets, was put on the spot. The Europeans even want Gorbachev to be invited to the London summit of industrialized nations in July. The International Monetary Fund has entered into the fray by estimating that Moscow would need between $30 billion and $50 billion a year over the next five years to reform and transform its now utterly failing economy.

But then it became really complicated. While people like Yavlinsky and Gorbachev's chief economic adviser, Yevgeny M. Primakov, were rushing around here trying to make deals that nobody even remotely understood, the word coming from Moscow was quite different. Senior aides to Gorbachev quite deliberately rejected any idea of linking Western financial assistance to political reforms. And, anyway, not only are no reforms yet made, but people here were not even sure that people like Yavlinsky were really speaking for Gorbachev -- or for anybody in the Kremlin.

It was at this moment in this new game -- of communists begging capitalists for money the capitalists don't have, to capitalize themselves into whatever kind of system comes out of the whole thing -- that I decided to call my foremost adviser on the Soviet Union.

It was with some urgency that I put through a call to Enders Wimbush, the brilliant Sovietologist who is head of Radio Liberty in Munich. Enders always knows what is going on in the Soviet Union, and he is always right.

"What is this all about?" he repeated. "I haven't the foggiest idea."

My own confusion thus confirmed by a higher source, I perused with considerable interest the final report of the Arden House meeting, a group of 60 diplomats, scholars and thinkers brought together by the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Assembly of Columbia University.

Basically, these leading experts on foreign policy split over the wisdom of any "grand bargain" in which Western nations would "provide massive aid to the Soviet Union, contingent on Soviet steps to cut defense spending, build democracy and shift to a market economy." But those experts expressed interest in an ongoing bargaining process to encourage Soviet reform and help the Soviet Union qualify for membership in international economic organizations.

So, where does that leave us, besides with the feeling that Washington has become Disneyland North?

Well, it would seem that Moscow remains Moscow -- in short, the symbol of the most labyrinthine, Byzantine maneuverings in the world. I am left with a greater suspicion of Gorbachev and his growing desperation than I had before, plus a greater certainty that the West should not throw money into reforms that are not yet even on the drawing board.

The toughest policy on the part of the West may in the long run be the kindest.

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