PARIS -- During the weeks leading up to Boris Yeltsin's announcement that he will run for another presidential term, Western governments and press were conducting a frivolous debate over whom among Russia's presidential candidates the West should support.
The debate is frivolous, if not perverse, because it ignores the irrelevance to Russian domestic politics of what the West now thinks or wants, and also fails to acknowledge the damage to post-Communist Russia the West has already done by well-intentioned interference in that country's affairs.
The present consensus seems to be that Mr. Yeltsin should be backed. To that end, President Clinton has endorsed an impending $9 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Russia. The Council of Europe, which in principle is limited to states that protect "human rights and fundamental freedoms," has just admitted Russia to membership, out of concern for Mr. Yeltsin's electoral fortunes, despite Mr. Yeltsin's war against Chechnya.
The German government has unofficially asked NATO to play down the issue of NATO expansion until the Russian elections are over. France's Prime Minister Alain Juppe was in Moscow last week for trade discussions and he extended a new line of credit to Russia. French President Jacques Chirac will visit Mr. Yeltsin in April.
The French foreign ministry describes Mr. Yeltsin as "the last barrier" to the collapse of democracy in Russia. This description is possibly correct. Mr. Yeltsin's own recent conduct, however, has not done much to reinforce this opinion of him as democracy's rampart. On the other hand there may exist in Russia democratic resources insufficiently appreciated in Paris.
The Russian public has indicated a quite remarkable, and even defiant, determination to continue to speak its mind and vote for whom it pleases. The problem is not a lack of popular support for democracy but a lack of the social and economic structures in which democracy can progress; and for that lack the West bears a certain responsibility.
Much Western economic advice to Russia's reformers has been delivered from theoretical models that disregard Russia's historical and social context. Rapid privatization in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary was successful because Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were successful industrial capitalist societies in 1939 and had no great difficulty rebuilding such a system. It was in the social and cultural memory; there were people still alive who had been entrepreneurs, bankers and manufacturers.
Russia in 1917 had rapidly developing industries and a narrow entrepreneurial class, but that was 80 years ago. The people involved were murdered during or after the revolution. Their murderers were subsequently murdered during Stalin's purges.
The attempt to shock Russia into modern market capitalism by destroying its existing economic and managerial structures simply dumped it into anarchic economic gangsterism at worst, or produced the expropriation of the most important economic sectors by alliances of former Communist Party and intelligence interests with the industrial managers in place. Most major political figures in Russian government and parliament today are tied to one or another of these quasi-clandestine alliances of money and power.
The popular effect of reform has been the pauperization of an important segment of the population, with destruction or devaluation of the institutions of social insurance that in the past provided security. Naturally an important part of the electorate has turned against any more such "reform" and against the candidates who seem to enjoy the greatest Western favor. LTC Appeals by Western commentators that Russia's reformers unite behind one candidate may not be very good advice.
The West's past enthusiasm for Mr. Yeltsin thus contributes to his present political isolation, so that in opinion polls he currently runs behind the new Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. It is politically more profitable to run for office in Russia as a critic of the West, as Mr. Zyuganov does.
Mr. Zyuganov, who recently made a considerable splash with the Western press at the Davos economic forum, is a man of a kind familiar to anyone who knew the Soviet Union in its final years, and those who ran it. He is a man of power, not an ideologue. His appeal is that of a man who knows how to get things done.
The idea now is very widespread in Russia that the events of the last five years have been the result of a deliberate Western campaign to destroy the Soviet Union and undermine its Russian successor-state, to American and West European advantage. The NATO expansion controversy derives from that: In the eyes of many Russians, military intimidation has now been added to economic disruption.
Little can be done to change any of this now, but the West can certainly avoid making matters worse. The best thing it can do about this Russian presidential election is to stay away from it. The issue in this vote is what Russians want from their own future.
When that is settled, the nature of West's continuing relationship with Moscow will become clear. While this will depend upon the policies adopted by the newly elected president (and his allies in the economic sector), it should be said now, and repeated as often as necessary, that the West's fundamental interest is that Russia finds prosperity, and that it is at peace with itself as well as with its neighbors.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.