Only Russia can make itself whole

September 15, 1999|By R.C. Longworth

AS THE century ended, the old empire writhed in its death throes. Once the focus of the world's dread and the master of much of Europe, the old imperial power, grown rotten through misrule and incompetence, decayed and crumbled. In the end, it recoiled into its eastern base, scorned by a new world it had never bothered to join.

So died the Ottoman empire, in a demise that eerily foreshadowed the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the agonies of Russia a century later.

The passing of the Ottomans took longer: Its 500-year empire, which once stretched from Algeria to Vienna, eroded over 50 years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and casts its shadow to this day. The war over Kosovo may have been the last battle of the Ottoman legacy.

But the only physical remnant of the Ottoman empire is Turkey, just as Russia is the stump of the old Soviet Union. Turkey remains today a serious and consequential nation, often a valued U.S. ally, but still half-European and half-Middle Eastern, a demi-democracy with a Third World economy, regional rebellions and the kind of human-rights abuses and religious fundamentalism that Western Europe long ago put behind it.

Is Russia going to turn out like Turkey? Is this former superpower going to be a major player in Europe, dominating the politics of the region, or will it end up as a minor power, not really important, capable of causing concern but keeping few statesmen awake at night?

To many Western diplomats and policy makers, this is a ridiculous question. Russia, they say, is a vast continental nation, an economic invalid to be sure, but one with thousands of nuclear weapons. Every policy, such as the prosecution of the war in Kosovo, must be carried out with one eye on Russia and nothing can go forward without considering how it will affect our relations with the Kremlin. Russia may be weak now but it will be a mighty power again soon enough, and must be kept sweet.

In other words, these policy makers and politicians treat Russia like the Soviet Union, like the superpower it once was, not the reeling, incompetent failure it has become.

Toward a sensible policy

That is Cold War thinking and needs to be updated if we are to have a sensible policy toward Russia, not one that lurches from crisis to crisis.

Certainly, it's too early and too glib to assume that Russia in the next century will be a semi-major country like Turkey, a useful friend at best and an irritant at worst. Those nukes, even in the slippery fingers of the people running Russia now, still count for something.

What's needed instead is a long cold look at Russia as it is, not as it had been for the 70 years of communism. And then, it will be time to reframe Western policies to make sure that Russia gets what it needs and gives what it can, but has no veto over these policies.

Russia today is as it has been through much of its history, an oppressive place filled with richly cultured and educated people with a talent for everything -- music, dance, literature -- except running a country.

For 1,000 years and more, it has lurched between the autocracy of an all-powerful czar or commissar and the chaos of misrule or non-rule by weak, sickly, sometimes mad rulers surrounding by scheming courtiers and rivals. Outside the Kremlin walls, the people still wallow in poverty, hunger and disease, like the chorus in some 19th-century Russian opera.

Traditionally, Russia has careened between despots (Joseph Stalin, Ivan the Terrible), reformers (Mikhail Gorbachev, Czar Alexander II), and weaklings (Czar Nicholas II, the last czar, and the present ruler, Boris Yeltsin).

Through the centuries, Russia, isolated on its vast landmass beyond Europe, hewed to the principle of divine rule and repulsed the great intellectual and cultural currents -- the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment -- that produced Western democracy.

The sole difference today is that Mr. Yeltsin's government calls itself a democracy, but it's a poor imitation of the real thing. Unreconstructed Communists run the parliament, oligarchs control the press, a home-grown Mafia bleeds the economy and Mr. Yeltsin changes governments like shirts, while his doctors claim he's healthy and his entourage claims he's sober.

Russia has literally wasted the eight years since communism collapsed.

In Poland and Hungary, post-communist governments made the hard reforms and are reaping the rewards: Their economies bottomed out long ago and they have become virtually Western nations, secure in their market democracies and well on their way into the 21st century.

Russia could have done this, but it didn't. Instead, it allowed former Communist Party officials and small-time crooks to gobble up factories and called it privatization. Apart from this phony reform, nothing has been done.

Banks pump money into failed firms with no hope of repayment. The ruble collapses and the country is in default on its debts, reliant on the International Monetary Fund to keep going.

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