Russia's painful crawl uphill


WASHINGTON - As the tragedy of the Russian submarine Kursk unfolded, Vladimir Putin's government responded with mendacity, lying about many things and suggesting that some other nation's submarine had collided with the Kursk.

Which is to say, the government behaved like what it is, a cabal run by a third-generation apparatchik: Mr. Putin, whose grandfather was in Lenin's and then Stalin's personal security details, and whose father was a Communist Party functionary, was a KGB careerist before converting - if you think as the Clinton-Gore administration evidently does - to democracy.

The nature of Mr. Putin's government is pertinent to America's presidential choice. Al Gore, much more than George W. Bush, adheres to the anachronistic idea that Russia must be treated as a great power - witness Mr. Gore's quest for Russia's permission for America to defend itself against ballistic missiles, and his passion to preserve the 28-year-old ABM treaty.

Mr. Gore should read in the National Interest quarterly Zbigniew Brzezinski's essay, "Living With Russia," which argues that "there is no solid foundation" for Russia's claim to global status.

Russia's domestic conditions are "bordering on social catastrophe" - ruined agriculture, collapsing infrastructure and steady deindustrialization of the imploding economy. In 1999, direct foreign investment in China was $43 billion, in Poland $8 billion, in Russia $2 billion to $3 billion. Sixty percent of recent births are not fully healthy, 20 percent of first-graders are diagnosed with some mental retardation. Since 1990, male life expectancy has declined five years, to around 60.

Russia's demographic crisis - its population dropped from 151 million to 146 million in the 1990s - exacerbates its geographic crisis. To the east are 1.2 billion Chinese with an economy that is four times larger than Russia's and is lengthening its lead. To the west are 375 million Europeans with a surging economy 10 times the size of Russia's. To the south are nine Muslim states with combined populations of about 295 million Muslims (not counting Turkey's 65 million) seething about Russian brutality against Chechnya. By 2025 the population of the nine may be 450 million (plus Turkey's 85 million).

Nevertheless, Mr. Brzezinski's basis for "longer term optimism" - very longer term - is that Russia's dilemmas are so dire, it has no realistic choice but to join a "Vancouver to Vladivostok" West. But for the foreseeable future, Russia's government justifies pessimism.

Unlike in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, there are, Mr. Brzezinski says, no former dissidents in Russia's government. It consists, "with no exception," of the sort of people - "former apparatchiki, criminalized oligarchs, and the KGB and military leadership" - who could be governing the Soviet Union if it still existed.

Unlike Germany and Japan after losing a war, Russia after losing the Cold War was not occupied and reformed. And even though Mr. Putin's office has a portrait of westernizing Peter the Great, Russia's "renunciation of the Soviet past has been perfunctory" - the corpse of Lenin, founder of the gulag, is still honored in central Moscow.

Mr. Brzezinski contrasts Russia's stagnation today with Turkey's rapid modernization after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1922. The slow decline of that inefficiently repressive empire allowed the development of a cadre of intellectuals and military officers - the Young Turks - eager to westernize. Turkey quickly adopted the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code and the German commercial code. Russia's progress, says Mr. Brzezinski, will be delayed until "Russia's past imperial and global status will have become a distant memory rather than an entitlement."

Mr. Putin's talk of a Russia "which commands respect" as "a great, powerful and mighty state" is delusional. Alexander Lebed, a former general and current politician (who, granted, has an ax to grind), claims there are fewer than 10,000 combat-ready troops.

Last year the Associated Press reported that fuel is so scarce that pilots average 25 hours flying a year, compared with the Western air forces' minimum of about 200 hours.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Mr. Putin says the submarine fleet may be cut to 10, and that last summer "the Baltic Fleet owed so much money to the Kaliningrad bread factory that the plant refused to supply any more bread." An indicative indignity occurred in 1995 when a submarine was stripped of its missiles and used to transport potatoes to Siberia.

The submarine Kursk was named for the city that had been supplying it with food and other supplies. That city's name also is attached to the great 1943 battle - history's largest tank battle - that guaranteed the survival, for a while, of the Soviet regime. The Putin government's response to the Kursk submarine's tragedy shows how long and arduous is the crawl up from communism.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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