Networking replaces the nomenklatura: A young elite, pragmatic and tolerant, is building a new civil society in Russia

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MOSCOW - Is it really fair to describe Russia only as a theatre of mafia crimes, corruption, fast and shaky business deals, future Chernobyls, or barely veiled military aggression in the 'near abroad'? Beyond these undeniable facts there is a reality which, though less spectacular, amounts to the metamorphosis of Russian politics and society. Without fanfare, Russia's political and economic elite has in the past year undergone the crucial transition from ebullient but insecure adolescence to a more mature and stable, albeit less idealistic, political identity that is increasingly rooted in the Russian tradition.

We were able to witness this transformation in the context of the Moscow School of Political Studies. Established a little more than a year ago by Lana Nemirovskaya, a dynamic and charismatic Russian, with the support of the Council of Europe, British, French, and German foundations as well as enlightened Russian entrepreneurs, this school - which is really a series of seminars - has become a place where Russia's young political elites can meet in an informal setting and start to form their own networks.

A little over a year ago, when we wrote about the school's initial impact (the Independent, 29 April 1993), we emphasised the creation of a democratic spirit among young parliamentarians, locally elected officials, businessmen and journalists. At the time, these elites were fighting an ancien regime they were not sure they could defeat. A year later, this struggle has ebbed. It was resolved, at least temporarily, by the events of last October, when parliament mounted its violent challenge to President Yeltsin and was defeated, and the subsequent elections. Pragmatism, a palpable though qualified optimism, and, above all, a sense of established political legitimacy and stability now prevail.

True, new problems and new challenges have arisen in place of the old constitutional debates. Vladimir Zhirinovsky is now perceived less as a direct threat and more as a sign that Russia must find a new, moderate, 'politically correct' nationalism within which to contain the country's 'Red-Brown' (Communist and fascist) tendencies. Solzhenitsyn is admired from a distance as a moral beacon with little political impact or relevance. Russia's new elites have other things on their minds.

'Getting rich' ranks high, but not just as vulgar individual consumerism. It is as though Nineties capitalism had replaced the Communist ideal of the Twenties as the collective passion of the elites. Capitalism has become the motor for national renewal in ways that are reminiscent of France in the 1840s, when Prime Minister Guizot's motto to the French was 'enrichissez vous'. At that time, democracy in France was only embryonic - based as it was not on universal suffrage but on the vote of the 'haves', the landowning classes and the bourgeoisie. Perhaps it is this 19th-century political and economic reality and not universal suffrage that best describes the state of Russia today.

This conversion to capitalism does not mean that today's Russian elites have forgotten their initial attraction to democracy and freedom. But these concepts have yet to take firm root. Political, economic and media pluralism fare better, but Russians are still keen to import Western institutions such as tax systems or the Ombudsman only if they can place them in a 'Russian context'.

Russia's Westernised elites are increasingly assertive about their indigenous political traditions and less afraid of evoking a Russian way. In their minds, Russia's political model should be more centralised and authoritarian than the Western version, but far more committed to human rights than Asia's enlightened despotism as advocated by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore.

Latin America is often mentioned as a model. Chile and now Argentina continue to fascinate liberal Russian economists. The more pessimistic cite Brazil, with its mixture of corruption, violence and high inflation, but the training and professionalism of Russia's elites and middle classes make such a comparison unlikely. Russia has the human capital to make the leap into pluralist modernity. Furthermore its elites, firmly rooted in their regional identity, will not let themselves be dominated again by a new Moscow- run nomenklatura.

Foreign policy is clearly not a priority for these new Russians. When foreign policy is discussed, however, the contradictory nature of the Russian world view becomes clear. Those who attend the school, mostly members of the Duma or Russian parliament, want Russia to join every possible international organisation, from the Council of Europe to the G7, from the European Union to Nato's Partnership for Peace, because they do not want to be 'left out'. At the same time, however, they resent being made to share the lot of infinitely smaller nations that are also queuing for membership of the Western club. As someone said to us, 'How can you compare us with the Czech Republic or even Poland? We are Russia' (ie, a potential giant that can be equated only with the US, the European Union, China or Japan).

What is most striking, though, is the willingness of young Russians to engage in open pluralist dialogue in a spirit of tolerance and individual modesty that goes beyond their still imperfect democratic reflexes. This growing tolerance is crucial, for without it democracy cannot flourish.

Russia's problems are far from over. But, like a dry plant responding to badly needed water, Moscow and scores of other cities across Russia are coming back to life. Their old buildings are emerging from decades of neglect to rediscover their colours and ancient grace; improvised street cafes, two or three plastic chairs and a table, are harbingers of a slowly emerging civil society.

The physical signs of change are symbols of a deeper reality. A new Russia with new political and economic institutions and new rules is slowly emerging from the instability of the past few years. It may not be quite the Westernised democratic Russia that idealists had envisioned, but it is a dynamic and progressive country that may actually make it because (so far) it is pointed in the right direction. The West has a responsibility to keep it on course.

The author is deputy director of the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales and editor of 'Politique Etrangere'. This article was written jointly with the historian Diana Pinto.