Seeing Russia Plain

March 1, 1999 Topic: Security Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: MuslimYugoslavia

Seeing Russia Plain

Mini Teaser: Why U.S. intelligence has not performed better with respect to the crime and corruption that have helped frustrate Russia's transition to a stable, free-market democracy.

by Author(s): Fritz W. Ermarth

Whenever the CIA is accused of spinning its intelligence analysis to
fit policy preferences, it replies tartly that it "tells it like it
is." For the most part, it really does. But in the case of Russia,
telling it like it is, and seeing it like it really is, are both very
difficult. This article explores some of these difficulties.

The saddest disappointment of the post-Cold War era has been the
failure of Russia to find and follow the path of political and
economic democracy. In the long run, this disappointment may also be
the most dangerous: Russia is a country that spans ten time zones and
contains thousands of nuclear weapons and other deadly materials

Most troubling of all the effects of the Russian crisis is its impact
on Russian hearts and minds. When hammer and sickle gave way to
Russia's tricolor in 1991, Russians believed themselves destined for
democracy and a free-market economy, the two key constituents of what
they called simply a "normal society." They also exhibited admiration
for the United States unequaled by any other of America's adversaries
after the great conflicts of this century. Such attitudes are now
hardly perceptible. They have been replaced by hostility toward what
has been foisted on them in the name of democracy and capitalism, and
toward the United States, which most believe to have been in some
degree responsible for the failures and perversions of "reform."

The hostility to reform now ascendant in Russia stimulates forces
that could for generations hence take the country on another detour
into the swamp of authoritarianism, muddled étatism and social
stagnation. Neither Stalin's nor Brezhnev's Soviet Union can be
restored. But some form of weak, irresponsible state authority over a
disordered society could sink roots that would corrupt the capacity
of new generations to truly govern themselves.

At the bottom of this reflection lies a most disturbing thought. What
if the Russians simply cannot make it? What if the post-communist
experience of Russia means that the "self-evident" truths of
Jefferson and Lincoln are not for all people, but only for some? In
its aspirations, Russia has been oriented toward Europe and the
Atlantic world for a thousand years. Its failure at a time of high
promise finally to enter that world would not only be a tragedy for
Russia itself but a deep injury to Euro-Atlantic values. The perils
of nuclear and other junk emanating from Russia are frightening
enough. But the grim possibility at stake in the Russian
experience--that civilized self-government is not for all people--is
more frightening still.

Where is Russia at the moment? The Moscow media pundit Igor
Malashenko recently characterized its present situation as "the dead
end of the beginning", the complete failure of a false start.
Russia's perennial democrat-in-opposition, Grigory Yavlinsky, has
characterized the Yeltsin period and its misfired reforms as the true
end of the Soviet era, citing in particular how it has been dominated
by Soviet nomenklaturchiki of various stripes. Yavlinsky sees the
prospect for a fresh start, grounded on post-communist generations
and ignited by victories for sensible democrats, notably himself, in
upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Whatever else it is, the present moment of fading Yeltsin and aging
Primakov, a kind of interregnum, should be a moment for stock-taking.
We, too, have a bit of an interregnum on our hands.

Aspects of the Russian Crisis

Russia's crisis is widely identified with the financial meltdown of
August and the replacement of the reformist Kiriyenko government by
one whose top figures, Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Maslyukov, are
Soviet-era functionaries evidently committed to achieving political
stability by not doing much of anything, at least at the time of
writing. These developments are but symptoms of more long-lived

The revolution of 1991 was not as revolutionary as it seemed. The
termites had long been chewing away within, even before the wrecking
balls of glasnost and perestroika assailed from without. The Soviet
system collapsed because a large portion of the nomenklatura, those
with hands directly on state property, deserted the CPSU and the
Soviet state to pursue business interests and nationalist political
agendas. This had been going on sub rosa for years; the events of
late 1991 only unveiled and accelerated the process. As a result, the
post-Soviet scene in Russia is dominated by the people, relationships
and habits of the late Soviet era, particularly in the nexus of
property and power. Relatedly, the process left the Russian Communist
Party, the only real party on the scene, an assembly of angry losers:
a Soviet-style intelligentsia at the top, and a vast population of
pensioners and pensioner-like workers at the bottom who were not in a
position to seize property in the name of the market. A substantial
majority of the Russian population is, therefore, now made up of
people who are fearful about their shaky hold on new-found wealth, or
who sit astride assets that do not produce real wealth, or who are
resentful about having no places at the trough. Their understanding
of, and perceived stake in, real political and economic reform is
weak at best.

Russia possesses two important features of democracy: elections and a
more or less free press. But it does not have the essence of
democracy: an assured, law-based process for selecting leaders and
policies, and for protecting rights. The prospects for attaining real
democracy and preserving existing democratic features are uncertain.
Russian politics is based less on principles, programs and parties,
than on personalities and shifting coalitions among clans and their
hold on evanescent money. The results of politics are less mandates
and real power to effect policies than pecking orders and
opportunities for aggrandizement. At the summit sits a president with
vast nominal powers under a skewed constitution, but little real
power to influence the life of the nation--save for starting local

Power continues to leach out of Moscow into the regions. But there is
no clear sign of stable federalism, as opposed to fragmentation or
worse. Elections are generally freer and fairer than in Belarus or
Kazakhstan. It is more apt to call them free-for-all and
fair-or-foul, since money, manipulation and political violence
continue to play a large role. There is freedom of the press, in that
ideologically diverse media host lively commentary on Russia's
affairs. But Russia's media are controlled by the politico-business
clans who dominate national and regional politics. "Not by accident",
as Stalin would have said, are journalists prominent among the
bankers, tycoons, mafiosi and politicians assassinated since 1991.
Neither vice nor virtue is a sure protection in this turbulence.

The glass of Russian democracy, while not half-full, is assuredly not
empty. Elections occur and matter. The press presents the real stuff
of democratic debate. In the regions, devolution of Muscovite power
spottily shows real local self-government. Polls show that Russians,
for all their alienation, still associate their desire for a normal
society with free thought, free politics and free enterprise. When
they say they want a strong hand in power, most mean the opposite of
Stalin's arbitrary ruthlessness. They want a government that works,
an economy that works, and, underlying it all, law and order. They
want a voice in crafting those things. This is not an exotic agenda.

Russia's economic failure is clearly at the heart of the general
crisis. Finding the root causes and essential nature of this failure
is daunting. That the August crisis of devaluation and default is a
spinoff of a deeper predicament is clear. But what is that
predicament? It is not the collapse of the financial bubble, a bubble
blown out of a brand of snake oil that government and speculators
sold to each other. It is not the budget indiscipline of the Russian
government. Lacking real power to act with fiscal responsibility, it
chose to survive on short-term, high-interest credit and not paying
most of its bills. It had willing and well-credentialed accomplices
who justly deserve to be now holding empty bags. Again, it is not the
absence of real investment in the "real" economy, or the ubiquity of
capital flight. These are all effects, not causes.

The essence of the economic debacle is twofold: the collapse of
production, which has brought gnp down to less than half of 1990
levels; and the impoverishment of the majority of the Russian people,
with something like fifty million now living below what is itself a
ridiculously low poverty line. The unmeasurable effect of the
informal economy and widespread moonlighting in ameliorating these
dismal conditions does not substantially change the picture. They
merely explain how Russians manage to survive. The collapse
impoverished the Russian state beyond the capacity of oil exports and
financial legerdemain to sustain.

Russian politics revolves around the question of who is to blame for
the economic collapse, even more than who might conceivably offer a
path out of it. The root causes lie in a combination of a) the decay
of the Soviet economy for decades even before perestroika, b) the
hugely destabilizing actions of Gorbachev, and c) the misguided and
inadequate policies of the post-1991 reformers. There is plenty of
blame to go around.

Essay Types: Essay