What does future hold for desperate, ailing Russia? The essential uncertainty affecting Russia's future is what its relationship will be with the West and, above all, with the United States.

November 16, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The events in Berlin 10 years ago were foreseeable more than three decades before the wall fell. They were forecast by the East Berlin workers' uprising of 1953 and again by the Hungarian revolt and Polish mutiny of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968.

Each event was a demonstration that the Soviet "empire" in Central Europe had failed to take root. Successful empires win collaborators and converts. Some of its subjects join the rulers' side because that seems where successful careers will be made. Most do so because the ideas and values of the imperial power undermine those of the conquered society and inspire emulation.

In Europe's successful empires, ambitious young intellectuals, scholars, artists and aspirant politicians longed to go to Oxford, Paris, Leiden or Lisbon, and often did.

Indonesia's colonial-generation intellectuals included distinguished Germanic-language scholars. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, attended Cambridge and was a member of the London Bar, as was Mohandas Gandhi.

Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Western-educated anthropologist. Senegal's President Leopold Senghor was a distinguished French-language poet. Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh was a founder of the Communist Party of France.

There were Central European intellectuals who believed in communism and Moscow's revolutionary glamour while they struggled to install communism in their own countries.

After the Soviet army and intelligence services took over that job, and control of their countries as a result, they became cynical functionaries or went into exile.

In the late '50s, there were no Polish or Romanian poets or German philosophers who longed to go to Moscow to mingle with its intellectuals and writers. and share its sophistication. They instead became the region's dissidents and led the struggle to eject the Russians from their countries.

This failure of Soviet civilization to "take" inside its empire meant that the empire rested on bayonets and eventually had to fail. The Soviet Union's own collapse in 1989 was foreshadowed by its social and industrial failures and by the alienation of its communist elites themselves.

A member of that elite, Mikhail Gorbachev, took what proved to be the revolutionary step of letting the truth be told about the Soviet past and its current state of affairs. The foreseeable result was that the communist system could not bear the truth and disappeared. What can be foreseen today?

In the Central European nations, again in charge of their own destinies, "normal" troubles and disappointments are inevitable, as well as the fundamental success of once again belonging to the world where, culturally, these states belong.

In Russia, there will be a continuing struggle of nation-building under extreme political and social pressures. Russia's democracy has been created from Western precedents, not from intellectual and political forces or social structures that already existed in Russia.

The political legacy, even before communism, was authoritarian, and the precedents of Romanov monarchy and the moderate government that followed the Russian revolution are useless today. But the United States has given Russians bad advice, NATO expansion, diplomatic humiliation and the example of America's own chaotic democracy national narcissismand pitilessly profit-driven materialism.

The European Union until a few weeks ago excluded Central Europe and Eastern Europe from even some form of junior or auxiliary membership. It has left Russia to the Clinton administration.

The historian Timothy Garton Ash said recently that when the West looks at Central Europe today, it sees itself mirrored "in a rather unflattering light." It should be added that when it looks at Russia, it sees a gross and frightening caricature of both Western democracy and U.S. capitalism. It is not too late for the West to change its policies. The EU seems to have awakened to the need to support and integrate Southeastern Europe as well as Central Europe.

The Balkan wars have been a shocking lesson. The United States still has a chance to shift from a policy of interventionist support for chosen personalities and programs to a disinterested policy of critical support for democratic institution-building.

It can choose to treat Russia seriously, as a state with legitimate national interests, among them that the United States respects existing arms-control agreements -- not a popular idea in today's Washington.

The essential uncertainty affecting Russia's future is what its relationship will be with the West and, above all, with the United States. The answer to that depends more on the United States than on Russia, even though disillusionment with the West and xenophobia are strong and on the rise.

Russia's future thus depends to a considerable degree on what happens in the United States, which is difficult to foresee as the presidential campaign begins. That will take place at a moment when the U.S. political class and voting public are more ignorant of world affairs, more isolationist, more willing to look for enemies than at any time since the 1930s.

This may be primarily America's problem, but it is Russia's as well.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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