Russia is down but not out

Her economy has shrivelled, but Russia still has a mountain of horrendous weapons
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The Independent Culture
"OVER TO Mark... good question, thank you." Jamie Shea is quietly working the press. Note the use of the first name. Note the compliment and the small courtesies. A professional is in action.

This is Nato's frontman: the alliance's friendly face. He is articulate and - at least on air - patient; a twinkle-eyed everyman on a moral mission on behalf of the planet. Even BBC newsreaders call him "Jamie Shea", as if he was a quizmaster or a footballer known to every household.

The world's top corporations would pay fortunes for these silky, bloke- ish skills, and you can see why. Nato press conferences seem to be as equally bloodless and clinical as the alliance's weapons are supposed to be.

The mood seems so urbane that you can easily miss the clues - when, for example, Shea starts talking about the need for democracy in Kosovo.

To Western ears, of course, it sounds fair enough, unarguable good sense. Not so, though, here in Moscow or, indeed, to most Russians. Their foreign affairs analysts - working round the clock at present - will certainly have noticed when Shea began talking not only about Nato's "humanitarian mission" to stop ethnic cleansing but also about political ideology - the creation of a "multi-ethnic democracy" in Kosovo.

For, in Moscow, the word democracy - albeit completely unfairly - carries more negative connotations today than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. It comes hand in hand with market capitalism - the chief reason, in the eyes of many, that Russia is enduring an economic decline greater than the Great Depression.

Democracy's actual achievements here - more or less free speech and the fair-ish re-election of a president - have been forgotten about by all but a minority. They have been overtaken by more urgent issues of survival. In today's Russia, anyone billing themselves as a democrat can expect to be widely reviled.

So the confirmation that Nato's role is to export forcibly this little- loved Western ideology is only reinforcing the distrust and hatred with which the alliance is now almost universally regarded in Russia following the start of the bombing campaign. Who, Russians ask, will be next?

To fully understand this sentiment - as I believe we must try to do - it is again necessary to view the world through a Russian prism. The years since the end of the Soviet era have seen the emaciation of heavy industry, the collapse of the welfare system, a blazingly corrupt mass privatisation scheme, hyperinflation, fraudulent pyramid rackets, a rise of almost every social evil (crime, disease, poverty, begging) and the abject defeat of the Russian army at the hands of a few thousand Chechens.

All this was presided over by a president and his "young reformer" ministers who, much of the time, flew the colours of democracy with the broad approval of the West.

Final disillusionment set in last August when the rouble was devalued, Russia defaulted on its debts and almost all the "reformers" were thrown out of government. Nato's assault was the last straw, producing the defining moment in Russia's relationship with the world.

Russia's anger has several components. It is furious with Nato, which they believe has unveiled itself as the old enemy, relentlessly expanding to Russian borders. Yet again, Russia's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council counted for nothing. This time, bombs were raining down not on Iraqis, but Slavs.

The effect is proving traumatic: another psychological blow in the long process of adjusting to the loss of an empire. The last 10 days have made it clear that Russia probably has little else in her playbook - short of taking the hazardous step of supplying weapons or soldiers to the Serbs - beyond symbolic gestures such as dispatching a surveillance warship to the Mediterranean. Otherwise, she can but hope that Nato will call on it as an intermediary, and that it eventually will be able to claim to be the nation that extracted the world from another terrible mess.

In the meantime, concerns continue over the effect of the Kosovo crisis on the question of who runs Russia and the future path of this bruised and increasingly isolated country. Boris Yeltsin has long been marginalised by ill-health; most of his energy is now spent striking occasional postures as a national figurehead, and pursuing a down-and-dirty fight with a (now suspended) chief prosecutor who asked one question too many about corruption within the Kremlin. Yevgeny Primakov, the premier, is the power in the land.

So far, the crisis has benefited him. He combines within his stocky frame the subtle instincts of an austere Soviet, wary but respectful of the West, and a cautious reformer. Turning on the anti-US and Nato rhetoric after the bombing started came naturally enough, allowing him to chime with the genuine mood of outrage across the country. Were elections held tomorrow, he would win overwhelmingly.

The prospect of President Primakov would, of course, be greeted with scare stories in the United States, where the papers rarely mention his name without conjuring up the ogre-ish Cold-War caricature of a "former spy master" - a reference to his years as head of the foreign intelligence service. (Why don't they attach the same health warning to ex-president George Bush?)

It is true that his chipmunk smile disguises some unsavoury impulses - ambitions, for instance, to appoint rather than elect regional governors. But the West's policymakers would probably still prefer the devil they think they know - a hard-bargaining pragmatist who wants softly-softly reforms, but not at the expense of political consensus. In his six months in office, he has done much to cultivate bonds with the assortment of Communists and nationalists in parliament. But he is not an extremist or a madman.

And he seems to mean it when he says that he wants Russia to stay out of the war, and maintain relations with the West.

But madmen cannot entirely be ruled out. Mr Primakov says he doesn't want to run for president, though few believe him. If he doesn't, the picture becomes rather more alarming, given Russia's current anti-Westernism. The democrats believe their chances of a political revival any time soon have been obliterated. Three of their leading lights - ex-prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, and former senior ministers, Boris Nemtsov and Boris Fyodorov - made a desperate effort to regain some ground by parading an anti-Nato stance. Few took them seriously. Even Milosevic's media condemned them as nothing more than Western stooges.

Ground has been left to the mainstream nationalists, Yuri Luzhkov and Alexander Lebed, the Communists led by Gennady Zyuganov - and the wilder elements of the far left and right. The war has moved them centre-stage. They have all supported supplying arms to the Serbs.

Yet Russian politics is a fluid business. It is built around personalities, and the requirements of the industrial, oligarchic and regional elite. There are no guy-ropes - like strong parties, a demanding electorate, and an exacting media - holding the system in place.

Voters can be herded here and there by bullying and salesmanship. The elections are not until December (for parliament) and next July (the Kremlin). By then focus may well have switched away from Nato, even if it is still drowning in the mire of the Balkans, towards Russia's deepening poverty.

Russia's economy may have shrivelled to the size of Belgium's, but you cannot discount its views - however warped they may seem to Western eyes. It has still got a mountain of horrendous weapons. And it is still capable of forging unsavoury friendships. No amount of smooth talking from Nato's spinmeister can change that.