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Russia's New Clown, and the Parade He Leads


Paris.--The time has come for Western governments to lay off attempting to do good in Russia. The result of their attempts thus far is election of a Russian parliament of irresponsible nationalist majority -- less menacing to Russia's neighbors perhaps than to Russia's own chaotic political society and ravaged economy, but an international menace nonetheless.

The success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky nationalist movement obviously has more complicated causes than simply what the West has thus far done in Russia. Nonetheless, the West's bad advice has crucially contributed to what has gone wrong with economic reform and has stoked the anti-Westernism that gave Mr. Zhirinovsky followers a quarter of the vote in Sunday's national elections. His is now the largest party in parliament.

The sole positive comment that can be made about the debacle is that Mr. Zhirinovsky and his nationalists are not serious. Russians are not confronted with a party possessing a coherent doctrine and program, as with fascism in Italy after the first world war or Nazism in the 1920s and '30s. Mr. Zhirinovsky is an opportunistic demagogue promising cheap vodka, a freeze on prices, a doubled living standard in six months, the deportation of all non-Russians from Russian soil, "pacification" of Transcaucasia, and a new Greater Russia extended from the Baltic to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

This is rubbish, and in six months it will be clear to the Russian voters that it is rubbish. The importance of Mr. Zhirinovsky success is that he has revealed how profound is the ordinary Russian's dismay and fear at what has been happening in that country and to the lives of Russians.

For this the West bears a considerable responsibility. Its international institutions such as the IMF, its governments, bankers, academic economists and business people have insisted that Russia carry out a program of dismantling government, imposing economic austerity, deindustrializing the country in the guise of privatization, "liberalizing" a marketplace that scarcely existed. The result is a crippled economy, afflicted by criminality, victimizing the weak and the poor while flaunting the rewards of parasitical profiteering.

The West's recommendations were far more radical than could have been applied in a Western country. Russia has on Western counsel, and as a condition of Western aid, been subjected to an irresponsible experiment, drafted by people with no personal stake in the outcome.

The vast majority of Russians have grown poorer as a result. Industrial production is only 60 percent of what it was three years ago. The British scholar, Alex Nove, writes that now "the Brezhnev era seems to Russians a golden age." Inflation is 20 percent per month. The birthrate has fallen, the death rate increased, as social and medical services have fallen into dilapidation.

The key error was to expect that a functioning statist economic system, in a country lacking the institutions of civil society, could be turned into a market democracy by simply terminating the role of the state in the system. Without a planned and controlled program of gradual movement toward a new system, the old system has in most sectors been made simply to collapse.

The advice the Russian leadership accepted made an ideological argument rather than an empirical one. It claimed that ending state intervention would produce a spontaneously generated market capitalism, with prosperity to follow. This was a case of what the late French political critic Raymond Aron once called "delire logique" -- logical delirium, the humorless application of irrelevant theory to uncomprehended reality, a specialty of the second-rate mind.

The other thing Western governments have done, and continue to do, is to interpret the Russian political struggle in personalized terms, making Mikhail Gorbachev, and now Boris Yeltsin, the objects of unqualified Western support and the vehicle of Western policy expectations. This has made Western policy hostage to the success of these individuals, while making them seem, to many of their compatriots, agents of a Western intervention that thus far has had destructive consequences.

What has happened in Russia, and what will happen, is ultimately the responsibility of the Russians themselves. They made the revolution in 1917, and all that followed, and glasnost and the counterrevolution. Russia's leaders need not have taken the course they have since 1989, and could have rejected Western advice and aid. Instead, they chose what they understood to be the modern Westernizing course, and the result is a nationalist backlash that threatens to turn Russia away from the West and toward isolation, and perhaps toward violence.

The danger is not Vladimir Zhirinovsky. It is that he has opened the way for a serious nationalism, a truly anti-Western and pan-Slavic movement that would provide a contemporary articulation of forces that have dominated Russia at times in its past. As President Yeltsin's associates said in the weeks leading up to this election, Mr. Zhirinovsky is merely a clown. But the clown leads a parade in which lions and tigers and elephants, freaks and monsters may in turn follow.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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