Only Russia can make itself whole


AS THE century ended, the old empire writhed in its death throes. Once the focus of the world's dread and the master of much of Europe, the old imperial power, grown rotten through misrule and incompetence, decayed and crumbled. In the end, it recoiled into its eastern base, scorned by a new world it had never bothered to join.

So died the Ottoman empire, in a demise that eerily foreshadowed the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the agonies of Russia a century later.

The passing of the Ottomans took longer: Its 500-year empire, which once stretched from Algeria to Vienna, eroded over 50 years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and casts its shadow to this day. The war over Kosovo may have been the last battle of the Ottoman legacy.

But the only physical remnant of the Ottoman empire is Turkey, just as Russia is the stump of the old Soviet Union. Turkey remains today a serious and consequential nation, often a valued U.S. ally, but still half-European and half-Middle Eastern, a demi-democracy with a Third World economy, regional rebellions and the kind of human-rights abuses and religious fundamentalism that Western Europe long ago put behind it.

Is Russia going to turn out like Turkey? Is this former superpower going to be a major player in Europe, dominating the politics of the region, or will it end up as a minor power, not really important, capable of causing concern but keeping few statesmen awake at night?

To many Western diplomats and policy makers, this is a ridiculous question. Russia, they say, is a vast continental nation, an economic invalid to be sure, but one with thousands of nuclear weapons. Every policy, such as the prosecution of the war in Kosovo, must be carried out with one eye on Russia and nothing can go forward without considering how it will affect our relations with the Kremlin. Russia may be weak now but it will be a mighty power again soon enough, and must be kept sweet.

In other words, these policy makers and politicians treat Russia like the Soviet Union, like the superpower it once was, not the reeling, incompetent failure it has become.

Toward a sensible policy

That is Cold War thinking and needs to be updated if we are to have a sensible policy toward Russia, not one that lurches from crisis to crisis.

Certainly, it's too early and too glib to assume that Russia in the next century will be a semi-major country like Turkey, a useful friend at best and an irritant at worst. Those nukes, even in the slippery fingers of the people running Russia now, still count for something.

What's needed instead is a long cold look at Russia as it is, not as it had been for the 70 years of communism. And then, it will be time to reframe Western policies to make sure that Russia gets what it needs and gives what it can, but has no veto over these policies.

Russia today is as it has been through much of its history, an oppressive place filled with richly cultured and educated people with a talent for everything -- music, dance, literature -- except running a country.

For 1,000 years and more, it has lurched between the autocracy of an all-powerful czar or commissar and the chaos of misrule or non-rule by weak, sickly, sometimes mad rulers surrounding by scheming courtiers and rivals. Outside the Kremlin walls, the people still wallow in poverty, hunger and disease, like the chorus in some 19th-century Russian opera.

Traditionally, Russia has careened between despots (Joseph Stalin, Ivan the Terrible), reformers (Mikhail Gorbachev, Czar Alexander II), and weaklings (Czar Nicholas II, the last czar, and the present ruler, Boris Yeltsin).

Through the centuries, Russia, isolated on its vast landmass beyond Europe, hewed to the principle of divine rule and repulsed the great intellectual and cultural currents -- the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment -- that produced Western democracy.

The sole difference today is that Mr. Yeltsin's government calls itself a democracy, but it's a poor imitation of the real thing. Unreconstructed Communists run the parliament, oligarchs control the press, a home-grown Mafia bleeds the economy and Mr. Yeltsin changes governments like shirts, while his doctors claim he's healthy and his entourage claims he's sober.

Russia has literally wasted the eight years since communism collapsed.

In Poland and Hungary, post-communist governments made the hard reforms and are reaping the rewards: Their economies bottomed out long ago and they have become virtually Western nations, secure in their market democracies and well on their way into the 21st century.

Russia could have done this, but it didn't. Instead, it allowed former Communist Party officials and small-time crooks to gobble up factories and called it privatization. Apart from this phony reform, nothing has been done.

Banks pump money into failed firms with no hope of repayment. The ruble collapses and the country is in default on its debts, reliant on the International Monetary Fund to keep going.

Workers go months without pay, while the oligarchs smuggle billions into Swiss bank accounts. It is an economy based, like the communist one, on barter and cooked books.

Russia today is an embittered, isolated nation convinced that it is being betrayed -- by its own leaders, by the West, especially by the United States. Its one recent positive contribution to world stability -- its mediation with Serbia in the Kosovo crisis -- was treated at home as a sellout to NATO, as though Russia's future lies with Serbia, not the West.

NATO would have won the battle for Kosovo without Russia's help, but the use of former Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin as an envoy was seen as diplomatically necessary, to give Russia a share of the struggle against Serbia.

Mr. Yeltsin then squandered this minor triumph by ordering a contingent of Russian troops to scurry from Bosnia to Kosovo to seize the Pristina airport -- a bizarre stunt that only made Moscow look childish and guaranteed that NATO would give it no authority at all in the governing of Kosovo.

What is the West to make of a country like this?

Who 'lost' Russia?

There remains a school of thought that says the United States and the West "lost" Russia by not giving it enough money, or by giving it the wrong kind of advice, or by expanding NATO, or by being so "arrogant" as to make decisions without asking what Moscow thought about them.

The fact is Russia lost Russia. Given the history and present chaos there, nothing the West could have done to keep that country -- which is, after all, one of the world's biggest, and not easily manipulated -- from digging its own grave.

The West did send billions in aid to Russia, but every ruble was funneled back into those Swiss bank accounts by the oligarchs and Mafiosi. This is not exactly an incentive to send more.

The United States stands properly accused of post-Cold War arrogance in its often insensitive use of power around the world.

But this country, as the only superpower, has a global obligation to lead: The fact is that there is no way for us to exercise this leadership without reminding the Russians, a defeated superpower, that they lost the Cold War. Resentment is built into this new Russian-American relationship, and we must live with it.

The United States has obligations and policies toward Europe and Japan and China and the mineral-rich areas of ex-Soviet Central Asia, and it has a proper responsibility to be involved in issues such as terrorism and nuclear weapons and the environment.

Anything Washington does on any of these topics will affect Russia in some way, and the Russians probably aren't going to like it, whether or not it's good for them.

Working with Russia

The U.S. goal is not to avoid making decisions that might upset Moscow. Rather, the U.S. goal is to exercise proper and relatively modest leadership and try to persuade Russia to accept it.

It's uncertain if Russia will survive in its present form or manage to put its economy together. It probably won't evolve into a true democracy.

It certainly never will regain the kind of global power it had in the Cold War. It may have good relations with its neighbors, or it may not. All of this is up to the Russians, not Washington or the West.

The United States cannot run Russia. It can make it clear that it is willing to work with Russia if the Russians also are willing, just as we've worked with Turkey since the Ottoman empire disappeared.

In short, the West can keep the door open, in case Russia turns out to be friendly, while preparing for a more unpleasant world in case it doesn't.

The train to the 21st century is leaving the station, and the United States is the engineer. Whether the Russians want to ride along is up to them.

R.C. Longworth is a former Moscow correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, in which this first appeared.

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