Impotent Russia rails against the West

No longer a superpower - or even a global player. The aftertaste of defeat in the Cold War has never seemed more bitter; MOSCOW'S ANGER
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Here, ladies and gentlemen, are the headlines. Bong! Iraqi children are suffering because of Bill Clinton's love affair with Monica Lewinsky. Bong! The Americans are attacking Iraq to enrich their petroleum giants, by pushing up the oil price. Bong! As this scandal unfolds, Russia is powerless to do anything about it.

Thus, in anger and sadness, and with universal disapproval, has the Russian media covered the American and British attack on Baghdad. "Russia is no longer a superpower," mourned Izvestia on its front page yesterday.

Russia is upset not only because its membership of the UN Security Council has counted for nothing, or because the assault cuts across Moscow's policy of pushing for a political solution. What hurts as much as anything else is the impression that the United States, the world's only superpower, no longer appears to care a jot about what Russians think. Rarely has the aftertaste of Cold War defeat seemed so bitter.

This is not only a matter of the Russian government. The official response has, in fact, had a ritualistic air, not least because Moscow desperately needs western assistance if it is to stand any chance of reversing the country's steady downward slide. At the same time as the Kremlin was angrily hurrumphing about the bombardment and pulling back its ambassadors, plaintive officials were also stressing that an $850m (more than pounds 500m) food aid package with the US should not be affected, and nor would relations with the International Monetary Fund.

It is also a question of public opinion. In bombing Iraq, the US and Britain have shown no regard for the reaction of a Russian electorate which can be expected to play a significant role in determining just what kind of leader succeeds Boris Yeltsin (whose term expires in 2000).

In the past seven years, Russia's relationship with the West has, from the public's perspective, yielded almost nothing good. Russians have watched a parade of slick young economists come and go from office, flourishing western remedies from Harvard textbooks.

But the results have been hyperinflation, the rise and fall of hundreds of dodgy banks, the most corrupt mass privatisation of state assets in history and a plethora of crooked pyramid schemes - all of which have contrived to rob millions of people of their savings, their pensions and their monthly pay packets.

The final blow came in August when a rescue package crafted by the IMF failed and the rouble crashed to a third of its value, wiping out yet more savings and wages and sending the country into a full-blown economic crisis.

Russians have watched with equal gloom as Nato has hurriedly expanded to Russia's western edge at a time when a broken-down army represents no serious threat. Add to this the spectacle of US and British planes bombarding an old Soviet friend in the Arab world, it is not hard to see why anti-westernism is on the rise.

For evidence of that trend one need look no further than the State Duma. Crackpot extremists have long flourished within its doors. But the Communists, parliament's largest party, have a new air of confidence about them. What could be dismissed as the utterances of the loony left a year ago, are now more significant. Some of these utterances are deeply alarming, such as a rash of anti-Semitic diatribes - a hallmark of anti-westernism, as Israel is assumed to be permanently plotting with the Americans.

The best weathercock of anti-westernism is the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, runner-up in the last presidential elections. At a recent congress of his coalition of Communist and nationalist forces, he identified Stalin as one of the great national heroes - an opinion he knows antagonises his democratic foes, and alarms western opinion. That he feels able to utter it is a measure of the current climate.

Politics are a mysterious business in Russia. The Communists have long had trouble expanding their base, despite the country's malaise, and the electorate are given to abrupt mood swings. It is too soon to say whether today's anti-western sentiments will translate into tomorrow's successes at the ballot box. But the fact that the world's last superpower no longer seems to care one way or another is good cause for concern.