Yeltsin's Russia: Is it the West's fault or was it his?: A challenge for the world

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The Independent Online
ARE Western governments deaf? For almost a year, the alarm bells have been ringing over Russia. Since October, in particular, they have been sending out an unmistakable message: Boris Yeltsin and his allies are in deep trouble. Was nobody listening?

The West was listening, all right. Washington, Bonn, Paris and London were receiving the message from Moscow loud and clear. However, they responded by putting the message in a file marked 'Fairly urgent but deal with later'.

In the United States, the Bush administration, in its last year, was tired and absorbed by the presidential election campaign; Bill Clinton saw domestic recovery as his top priority. In Europe, the energies of governments were taken up by the crisis over the Maastricht treaty and the Yugoslav wars. Across the West as a whole, economic recession sapped the will and narrowed the vision of governments which knew in their hearts that the future of Russian reform was still the world's biggest issue.

It is not deafness but delusion that is the charge to be levelled at Western governments. Delighted at the end of the Soviet threat, they basked in wishful thinking about what might emerge in its place. They have offered Western publics a sanitised, comforting picture of events: sure, Mr Yeltsin has enemies, economic reform is proving difficult, and ethnic conflicts are raging around the former Soviet Union; but things are not going that badly - the nice guys will pull through.

It is a measure of the Western leaders' sensitivity that, when a high-ranking American diplomat dared last month to challenge this interpretation, he was instantly dismissed. Richard Armitage, who co-ordinated US assistance to the former Soviet republics, gave a speech in Tennessee in which he compared Mr Yeltsin's vulnerability to that of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late Soviet period. 'I think he's at about the end of his usefulness,' he said.

For months, the West has been reluctant to acknowledge the truth that Russia is not progressing into the glorious uplands of democracy and prosperity, but is sliding into the mud of economic ruin, nationalist reaction and civil conflict. One reason is that such an acknowledgement could place serious strains on the Western alliance. It would raise the question, that everyone would like buried, of whether Russia is going to become a cantankerous neighbour again. That, in turn, would raise the questions of whether the West should revive its policy of containment of Russia, and extend its defensive umbrella over newly democratic Eastern Europe. These are issues that expose tensions at the heart of the Atlantic alliance: French suspicions of US leadership of the West; German fears of Russia again becoming the great enemy to the east; and everbody's desperation not to throw away the cherished 'peace dividend' from the end of the Cold War.

The other reason is that, if the depth of Russia's crisis is publicly admitted, the question arises as to whether the West has pursued fatally misguided policies in its attempt to assist reform in Moscow. Was it right to encourage a head- long dash to the market economy that seems to have brought nothing but hyperinflation, a collapse in production and social hardship? Should the West actually have given Russia all those tens of billions of dollars in aid that have been generously promised but mysteriously withheld?

Two points should be borne in mind. First, Japan alone has the capital funds on the scale Russia requires. But Japan has refused to take the lead, partly because it wants Russia to hand back the Kurile Islands occupied by the Soviet army in 1945, and partly because it sees its neighbour as an economic disaster that would devour aid like a black hole.

The second point, rarely appreciated in the West, is that although Mr Yeltsin and his government are labelled 'market reformers' and 'radicals', their efforts at turning Russia into a Western-style economy ground to a halt almost as soon as they started. What has taken place since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 15 months ago has not been the development of a capitalist system; instead, central control of the economy has collapsed into chaos, with tax evasion, smuggling and all manner of corruption. Former Communist bureaucrats in Moscow have pumped money into gigantic state enterprises that have little or no future.

The West could have done nothing to reverse this chain of events. It was set in motion by the fall of the Soviet Union and has continued because, for purely internal reasons, Russia has been heading towards disintegration.

Russia's crisis has been simplified in the West into a battle between democrats and conservatives, Mr Yeltsin and the former Communists in the parliament. These struggles are certainly going on, but they conceal a deeper process in which Moscow's control of the multiple autonomous republics and regions that make up Russia is under serious threat. Just as the Soviet state could not maintain its authority over republics such as the Baltic states, Ukraine and, indeed, Russia itself, so the new Russian state is losing its grip over regions as far flung as the Pacific seaboard, Siberia and Tatarstan.

What we are witnessing is the continuing fall-out from the collapse of a centralised empire, the Soviet Union. It is naive to think that the West has much ability to influence it. What the West can do, however, is make clear to the eventual victors of the power struggle in Moscow that it wants to see a responsible, restrained Russia that does not threaten its neighbours or fundamental Western interests. The primary challenge for the West is not to pursue the illusion of turning Russia into a Western-style society, but to ensure its own security.

(Photograph omitted)