For a start, we could stop giving the Russians bad advice

November 25, 1996|By William Pfaff

VENICE -- The future of Russia is a major factor in the future of everyone else -- unfortunately. I say unfortunately because the future of Russia does not seem promising, in the short term.

Nor is this anything that the West has much power to influence, except negatively. ''Please stop giving Russia bad advice,'' was one of the bitter requests of Georgy Arbatov, longtime director of the Russian U.S.A. and Canada Institute, at a conference in Venice on Europe's future, sponsored by Italian Radio and Television.

He quoted Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard economist prominent among the early Western advice-givers to post-Communist Russia, as saying that he felt himself a surgeon who sliced open the patient and discovered that inside nothing was there that was supposed to be there. This suggests that the surgeon not only had the wrong diagnosis but had mistaken the patient for someone else.

The Russian people now are anti-American; in 1989-1990 they were enthusiastic about the U.S. and the West. There is now a widely held conviction that the United States deliberately set out to ruin Russia and eliminate it as a rival by deliberately giving it advice that crippled its economy and institutions.

Certainly much of the advice that was given was ruinously bad, completely misunderstanding the change possible in a society totally ignorant of marketplace functions and lacking the legal, institutional and social basis for capitalism -- least of all the naive and ideological version of cutthroat capitalism preached to Russians on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and by the followers of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. These treated Russia as the site for experiments unacceptable to the public in their own countries.

No longer a superpower

The result is that Russia is not only no longer a superpower but no longer a major power. It never was a superpower in material terms, except in its possession of nuclear weapons. Its superpower standing was owed to its victory over Germany, its world-historical ideological claims, and Washington's determination to see the Cold War as a millennial struggle for men's souls, the City on the Hill versus the Evil Empire.

(Parallel to this overestimation of the U.S.S.R. was West Germany's conviction for many years that Communist East Germany was a great industrial power. In the early 1970s I was surprised to see that there were virtually no trucks on the highways there, and little traffic at all. There was no bustle or buzz in the cities. How could East Germany be a world industrial power when even the hotel elevators didn't work? In Poland, a year after the fall of communism, in the middle of the night on the road from Warsaw to Krakow, the highway was alive with traffic; the country seemed not to sleep. It wasn't sleeping. It was creating the Polish ''miracle.'')

The present situation in Russia seems politically unsustainable. Industrial and agricultural production continue to fall, the industrial and transport infrastructure deteriorates ruinously, taxes are not collected and salaries are not paid (a disguised form of inflation), the population increasingly is pauperized -- except for the handful who have enriched themselves by looting the state. The war in Chechnya was a grievous self-inflicted wound.

The economist and former deputy mayor of Moscow, Larissa Piacheva, foresees popular revolt. ''The deep cause of the catastrophe . . . is the criminal manner in which economic privatization was managed, and the politico-economic system which resulted.'' It began in ''a powerful wave of democratization'' but the process ''was confiscated by the Russian authorities for the advantage of their favorites. This being illegal, it was done in the dark,'' accompanied by violence and murders.

Mr. Yeltsin's return provisionally quiets the succession struggle. The non-revolutionary alternative to his government is that the Communists return to power with a xenophobic nationalist/collectivist program. Much hope has been placed in Gen. Alexander Lebed as an uncorrupt and intelligent figure, but his political capacities are still unknown, and his rivals are united against him.

It is possible to write a scenario of recovery. The presidential election demonstrated robust popular endorsement of democracy. There are positive economic signs in construction and tourism. The new rich of the country, however they made their money, may choose to invest it inside Russia to establish their respectability. There is progress in administrative, financial and legal reform.

The French specialist Michel Tatu writes, ''what Marx called 'primitive accumulation' logically implies progression from the phase in which society is chaotically looted to a phase when those who possess wealth need to protect it, which requires a return to order and legality.'' The new rich currently are going into politics to consolidate their position. They are also increasingly powerful in press and broadcasting.

People like Mr. Arbatov are accused of being men of the past, nostalgic for the order provided by the old system but which they themselves destroyed, having recognized that it was bankrupt and corrupt. Mr. Arbatov collaborated with Mikhail Gorbachev in dismantling the Soviet system. They thought, though, that it could be done in a controlled and progressive way. Instead they found that they had relaunched revolutionary forces in Russia.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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