Here's a novel idea: the West takes over Russia's management

The emperor is naked - Russia hardly matters in world affairs in any positive, constructive sense

REYKJAVIK 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan came within an ace of renouncing nuclear weapons in their entirety? Or Malta 1989, where Gorbachev and George Bush pronounced the Cold War over? Or, for readers with even longer memories, the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, at which Stalin and the Americans carved up the post-war world ? Well, next month sees the linear descendant of those epochal encounters. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin are to hold a summit in Moscow. A meeting of the degenerate and the dispossessed, you may say. Oh for the great men of yesteryear, those of us reared in the bipolar world of rival superpowers are tempted to sigh. Now, the saddest aspect of the occasion will be its sheer lopsidedness.

The current trivialisation of America's political debate may be regrettable, even dangerous. But the miasma that envelops Bill Clinton cannot obscure the fact that not since Britain at its Victorian apogee has one country called the shots like today's United States. And at this moment, when the gathering crisis seems financial rather than political, the embarrassment caused by Clinton's follies matters less than it might. Arguably indeed, the most powerful men in the world are the ones who control America's purse-strings: Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin, the Treasury Secretary. But Russia's degradation is in an entirely different league.

Not that it is exactly a surprise. I remember arriving in Moscow for this newspaper in the frigid early January of 1987. I beheld the queues, the bleakness and corrosive shoddiness of everything in the capital of world Communism, and, like generations of correspondents before me, I asked myself, was this it? Was this what I had been raised to fear? Was this the mega-state whose GNP was computed by clever men at the Central Intelligence Agency to be the equal of America's own? So I imagined another and shimmering Soviet Union, a parallel secret country beyond the snows which we foreigners were never allowed to visit, where you would find futuristic cities, and terrifying technical virtuosity. Then, when Mikhail Gorbachev eased the rules, I went to the once forbidden industrial centres such as Chelyabinsk and Kemerovo. I saw obsolete factories spewing out pollution of every imaginable hue, to produce goods no one could afford. I saw at first hand places whose male inhabitants were lucky if they lived to 50. I realised at once that it would require half a century, and money undreamt of, if these people were to become like us.

But the illusion lived on. As in the story of the emperor with no clothes, we witnesses and bystanders became accomplices in the deceit. At first the pretence was essential. Bush played the Soviet endgame with consummate skill. For that, rather than for his defeat of Saddam Hussein or for his daily massacre of the English language, we should remember Mr Clinton's predecessor. Bush was accused of being too passive. But he had grasped that ultimately even the US with all its might could do little to shape events. Never did he humiliate Moscow; never did he treat Gorbachev as anything less than an equal. That is one reason why one of the more brutal empires in history came to an end with but a handful of lives lost.

But tact in excess, the continuing propagation of the lie, ultimately benefits no one. Russia was granted full membership of the G-8 as though it were one of the globe's financial heavyweights, not a beggar of the second rank, whose latest currency devaluation has not exactly sent tremors through new York, Frankfurt and London. And the charade goes on. American astronauts continue to tie their fates to Mir, that orbiting Intourist hotel of a spacecraft, again in the interests of preserving Russian dignity.

Above all, there has been the spectacle of the International Monetary Fund bending its rules, time and again, to allow more billions to flow to Moscow, waiving conditions that it has imposed uncompromisingly upon Asian countries whose economic health is far more important to world financial stability than is that of Russia. The cost of such folly is now apparent. Sergei Dubinin, the head of the Russian central bank, admits that $3.8bn of IMF money has been lost, probably for good, while the fund has virtually run out of fresh money to lend. If those right-wing dinosaurs of the US Congress take a pretty dim view of this, for once you can hardly blame them.

The inconvenient truth,which can be avoided no longer, is that the emperor is naked, that Russia hardly matters in world affairs in any positive, constructive sense. Its influence is almost solely negative, wielded by the veto and the refusal to co-operate. In that perspective, American policies might have been deliberately tailored to achieve the worst - above all Mr Clinton's foolish decision to expand Nato eastward. Moscow warned countless times against it - but still Washington seems surprised when the Russians play odd-man-out over Bosnia and Kosovo, oppose Western sanctions against Iraq, and play fast and loose with nuclear proliferation in countries such as Iran.

Of all the indignities of post-Soviet life, this slide down the international league table has been among the most difficult for ordinary Russians to bear. Communism, for all its failings, offered a sort of a bargain, of privation at home in exchange for clout abroad. Now the privations, for all but a few, are worse than ever, and the might and respect have all but evaporated. In this dispirited, enfeebled land, shorn of its self- respect, Bill Clinton will arrive next month like Superman. But what is he to do there?

For one thing, he might follow the example of George Bush and do nothing. Of course, the preservation and fostering of democracy in Russia is hugely important. But if no one quarrels with the goal, what means do we have to attain it? The IMF has promised $23bn, but not even double or treble that sum would do the trick in Russia - short of the politically impossible, the full-scale subcontracting of the Russian government and economy to Western management. Why otherwise throw good money after bad, when there are a score of more deserving recipients to be found around the world?

That said, one tantalising historical precedent does exist. In 1867, America purchased the 600,000 square miles of Alaska from the tzars for a few million dollars. What about Russia now selling an even larger swath of Siberia to the US for a few trillion dollars, payable in instalments over several decades? Let me say at once that the idea is not mine. It was advanced, and not wholly in jest, by some academics a few years ago, when Russia's future was a matter for hope rather than despair.

But the scheme has a compelling, if simplistic, symmetry. Russia would be assured the colossal sums it needs, over the period it needs, to turn itself into a clean and modern country, without running up debts it can never repay. Western expertise would be able to exploit Siberia's huge resources. As for this further act of US expansionism - well, America can hardly become more powerful than it is already. Would Russia buy the scheme? Probably not. But only by asking will Mr Clinton find out.

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