Only the Russians Can Solve Their Problems

January 27, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--Recent events in Moscow have been a blow to the Clinton administration, heavily overinvested in Boris Yeltsin and in a miscalculated reform package for Russia. They may not signal bad news for Russians.

The conventional idea in Washington is that by excluding prominent officials associated with market reforms from his new cabinet, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has put Russia on an economic course that will produce hyper-inflation and deepened social crisis.

There is another interpretation. The Russian government is making an intelligent response to the results of December's parliamentary elections. That vote revealed a popular backlash against Western-style reform and Western interference, and against the social disorders and suffering produced by existing reform policies.

The new government is choosing the centrally directed Chinese model for further reform of the economy, and backing away from the so-called ''big-bang'' measures successfully applied in Poland. No one can say whether China's methods can succeed in Russia, but they seem to make more sense than the Polish policy model.

Poland has been able to make its drastic break with the old system work because, before World War II, it was one of the more advanced industrial countries, with a vibrant private economy. When the Poles launched their reforms, there were people still about who knew how liberal markets and modern industry work, and there were institutional memories to consult.

This is not true for Russia, which for 80 years knew nothing other than the command economy run by the state. Brutally remove the state from such a system and the system simply stops working. Hence the plausibility of the Chinese model, which continues to make use of the mechanisms of state economic direction.

The Weimar-style inflation catastrophe scenario Washington now is inclined to foresee will indeed arrive if Moscow now cripples reform, or indefinitely prolongs subsidies to uneconomic industries, printing money to pay for this. But Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Chernomyrdin are not fools; they can see the dangers as well as their Western critics do.

It has been very rash to attempt to impose theoretical reform solutions on Russia, as the condition for Western aid. This shifts responsibility for reform failure from the Russian government to the Western patron. Mr. Yeltsin is not a client of the United States, and it is dangerous to act in ways that suggest that he is.

It is a bad Washington habit to insist on intimacy with the leaders of countries subject to American attentions. An important book just out on the collapse of the Iranian monarchy illustrates the point.

Written by an Iranian intellectual, Ehsan Naraghi, now an official at UNESCO, ''From Palace to Prison'' reports a series of %J conversations between Mr. Naraghi and the shah in the weeks before the shah fled Iran. The shah had become the United States' main Mideastern ally under the Nixon administration. The Naraghi book reveals his disorientation and demoralization when, the revolution developed, U.S. policy changed. ''Faced by the inconsistencies between American statements of support and American actions . . . the shah felt completely lost.''

Worse, the Carter administration officials knew virtually nothing about what they were doing. Institutional Washington had totally miscalculated the rise of Islamic radicalism and bazaar nationalism, and had failed to grasp that forced-march Westernization produced radical social discontent. Its academic theories of ''modernization'' were wrong.

It is not clear that Washington understands a great deal more about the Russian situation today. American interests should be expressed in terms of principles and institutional commitments, not commitments to personalities. Mr. Yeltsin should be supported because he has been elected president, and Mr. Chernomyrdin because he is prime minister, not because of a Washington policy assessment that one or the other ought to be promoted over his rivals.

Similarly, the attempt to manage Russian reform through the IMF and World Bank should stop. Last year, little more than a tenth of Western aid allocated to Russia actually was handed over, because the lending agencies held that Moscow was not conforming to Western reform demands.

The Russians have to save themselves. Western aid should be given on terms that make Russia responsible for what follows. As matters now stand, the West -- and the United States in particular -- will be held responsible if reform fails. That would be a very undesirable outcome, for both Russia and the Western powers.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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