A becoming modesty

July 30, 2002

RUSSIANS USED TO be known for being almost as boastful as Americans. Hard knocks put a dent in that. A generation ago, buildings in the Soviet Union were covered with cheerfully heroic murals of Sputniks and beakers and high tension lines, and the words, "We are building communism." Last week, a news Web site with links to the Kremlin ran a report that was headlined, "Russian government recognizes itself as one of the least effective in the world."

Yolki palki, as the Russians would say. (That's the "Jeeez maneeez" of the language of Pushkin.)

Here we are in the lazy days of summer - and talk about a bucket of cold water! The Ministry of Economic Development conducted a worldwide survey on "the effectiveness of the work of state organs" and determined that Russia placed 107th out of 150 countries. On the "quality of state regulation," Russia came in 158th out of 160.

Well, this may seem like sunny optimism, but there's only one way to go from there. Things are bound to improve. Now, the Russian government has sweeping economic powers and controls a vast security apparatus, so it's not as though anyone was forcing it into candor. It went out in search of a little dose of reality.

If only all dysfunctional organizations could be so honest.

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov cited the survey in arguing for deep administrative reforms. And then he brought up a problem that has plagued Russia for centuries - through despotism, communism and its current sort-of republicanism. That's the idea of "the state."

In Russia, only the state matters, except that the state has come to mean the structures of the government. This is wrong, Mr. Kasyanov said. The state is the people. "Either we latch on to that idea in a very short time, or nothing will change here for decades," he said.

That sounds like pretty fair advice, and not only for Russians. Being a good citizen doesn't mean being a good agent of the government. An organization - any organization - should exist not for its own good but for the good of the people who deal with it. Bureaucracy has its own imperatives - and they are not usually the same as those of the people it serves.

Now, surely no American would need such a reminder, even in this season of homeland security. But those Russians - once they were arrogant, and now they're ineffective. Once they were blind, and now they see. Who'd've thought?

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