Russian redux?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RUSSIA'S INVASION of Chechnya, its recent veto on Bosnia at the United Nations Security Council and its tough stand on the expansion of NATO are just the latest manifestations of a new assertiveness. And new developments inside Russia, as well as in Moscow's relations with other nations of the former Soviet Union, raise the serious possibility that the encouraging events that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire were not so much the beginning of Russia's long-term integration into the western community, but rather an interlude borne out of temporary confusion and weakness.

America's relationship with Boris Yeltsin's government should be among the foreign policy issues to be reviewed by the new Republican-controlled Congress. The Clinton administration's Russia policy is based on four flawed assumptions: (1) that the Yeltsin government is an agent of positive change in Russia and in the world; (2) that radical economic reforms have led and will continue to lead to the democratic transformation of Russian political life; (3) that Russian treatment of other newly independent states is basically benign, and (4) that outside the so-called "near abroad" (the former non-Russian Soviet republics), Moscow is generally prepared to play second fiddle to Washington.

But in examining the assumptions, we find:

Although Mr. Yeltsin made an indispensable contribution to the destruction of the Soviet empire, there is a near-consensus among Russians that their president has exhausted his potential as a reformer and is now preoccupied primarily with staying on top. As a result, Mr. Yeltsin -- who has no substantive agenda or political party and faces declining popularity (his job-approval rating in November was just 12 percent) -- is becoming increasingly reliant upon the military and security services and, consequently, more authoritarian at home and more nationalist abroad.

Paradoxically, radical economic reform conducted without concern for public support only contributed to this authoritarian trend. Whatever the long-term economic effects of Yeltsin's policies, his unpopular reforms could not be implemented without the short cuts from democracy Mr. Yeltsin took with the Clinton administration's blessing. While yesterday checks and balances were ignored in the name of reform, today they are disregarded to conduct military operations such as in Chechnya.

While Moscow is too preoccupied with its own economic difficulties to seek additional burdens by attempting to recreate the old Soviet Union, the Russian government openly seeks domination of the post-Soviet independent states without accepting responsibility for their economic predicament. From Moldova to Abkha zia to Tajikstan, Moscow has fueled brush fires on Russia's periphery and now demands to be recognized and subsidized by the West as a fire brigade. Furthermore, Moscow is pushing its weaker neighbors to give Russia the right to police their borders and to grant their Russian residents the right of dual citizenship. Meanwhile, Russia ominously declares that the protection of ethnic Russians, including those in neighboring countries, is a legitimate mission for the armed forces.

Moscow's conduct outside the "near abroad" demonstrates a new tendency to distance itself from Washington on many key issues such as Bosnia, Iraq, arms sales and NATO's expansion. Until now, Russia has regularly yielded at the last moment after loudly airing its differences with the United States. Now, the Russian leadership wants to conduct genuinely independent policies while continuing to receive billions in western subsidies.

The point is not that we should create an artificial confrontation with Russia simply because it is not living up to our unrealistic evaluations. It is to communicate to Moscow that attempts to bully NATO in a fashion reminiscent of Cold War Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko can only generate an anti-Russian backlash. The Yeltsin government should be told that Central European nations, in contrast to Russia, do not claim to be great powers and will be put on the fast track toward NATO membership. What is negotiable, and where legitimate Russian interests should be taken into account, is the strategic arrangement Moscow will be offered with the new NATO. The U.S.-Russian relationship would benefit from shifting the discussion from NATO expansion to NATO security guarantees for Russia.

Regarding the "near abroad," it is important to make clear that an American focus on Ukraine and the Baltics does not mean that Moscow has carte blanche to police the rest of the post-Soviet region. Americans may be unwilling to get involved in Moldova, Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, but it is doubtful that Congress would allow the administration to continue indirectly subsidizing Russian mischief there.

Finally, Congress should review all assistance programs to Russia. Most are inefficient and generate too many misunderstandings. Taxpayer dollars should instead be used to enable the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to help American businesses move into the promising Russian market. The time has come to start treating Russia as a normal country with a normal divergence of its interests from our own, rather than as a beloved but troubled dependency.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom and a special correspondent for Newsday.

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