Leading Article: Poverty is Russia's biggest enemy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TURNING from the monolithic structure of the Soviet Union to the complexities of post-Communist Russia, the men and women who make American policy must on occasion feel nostalgic for an era when enemies stood apparent and choices were clear. Bill Clinton's summit with Boris Yeltsin presented the United States with a set of problems as challenging as any during the Cold War.

American diplomacy has justifiably shifted emphasis to take account of the evolution in Russian politics. The advent of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the small margin by which President Yeltsin won his referendum indicated that prudence is in order. The West would prefer not to repeat the mistake of those who supposed that upon the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev hinged all Russia's hopes for reform. In such a vast and turbulent land, only a few mighty and bloodstained individuals have held power for very long.

Yet stability and continued reform are clearly in the interests of the Russian people, the country's neighbours and its erstwhile foes. What is to be done? First, Mr Yeltsin continues to deserve the support of the United States so long as he remains committed to the path of peace abroad and restructuring at home. But it is right, as America is now doing, to praise reform without canonising the reformer. Mr Yeltsin has given notice this week of his support for

progressive ministers and programmes. The chances of a capitalist and non-aggressive Russia emerging from the present disorder remain fair. At the same time, however, it would be foolish not to recognise that even moderate Russian politicians find themselves propelled towards a consensus view that Russia needs to reassert itself within a sphere of influence, and that the rights of native Russian speakers in neighbouring countries are a legitimate source of concern to Moscow. Such a policy is fraught with grim possibilities, but need not necessarily give rise to conflict.

The real source of hope for Russia is the possibility that the revolutionary destruction of Communism might yet produce material rewards for the people and give them faith in new democratic institutions. The market system is improving living standards in countries such as Hungary and the Czech republic. It is necessary to repeat the dictum once again: demagogues flourish and the gun commands where poverty and despair rule people's lives. That is why aid to Russia is still so important. There is no surer way to undermine reformers and give comfort to extremists than to utter promises and fail to live up to them.