Western advice won't help Russia, Mr Blair

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IN THE days when President Clinton beamed from our screens as youthful leader of the free world and not a snivelling sinner pleading for divine forgiveness, I accompanied him on one of those minutely scripted walkabouts in Moscow. In a privately owned baker's shop, he asked a woman in the queue which kind of loaf he should buy.

"It depends," she said flatly, "what kind of bread you like."

The interpreter was discomfited; the President's grin wavered. Here was his symbolic endorsement of the newly liberalised economy and the blessings of consumer choice being flattened by some grumpy housewife who clearly had not the slightest interest in a co-starring role in the CNN bulletins. If some stray Westerner wanted to buy bread, then fine: let him. No reason for her to get excited.

Five years on, Russia is adopting the same attitude of indifference laced with hostility towards the West. It is likely to turn its back on extraneous advice and warnings for the foreseeable future. If there is one unmistakable message emerging from the din of Moscow's present chaos, it is that a period of silence on our part would be welcome.

Oblivious to this, energetic Western leaders feel a pressing urge to do something about Russia at the very time that nothing can be done. In that spirit, Tony Blair, holding the chairmanship of the G7 leading industrial nations, has called a meeting of the group on Tuesday. Upheaval in Moscow will not be allowed to pass without a communique of great powers datelined London.

The net result will be to underline our helplessness in the face of events in Russia. This is a virility contest among eunuchs. Chancellor Kohl, particularly jealous of his dignity two weeks before a possibly fatal German election, has already slapped down Mr Blair's earlier proposal to host a full-scale summit on the sound principle that such grandstanding is unlikely to help and may well prove counter-productive. So a host of "senior officials" - the C list of international gatherings behind Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries - is the best that Mr Blair can do.

I have had no luck in determining, from those who are supposed to know these things, what the purpose of the meeting is. We are simply told that the West "needs to act quickly when a new government is formed in Russia".

Oh no it doesn't. Acting quickly - indeed, acting at all - is the worst possible idea just now. In Yevgeny Primakov, the former head of the post- 1991 intelligence services, Moscow has produced a stable figure as Prime Minister, but one whose economic-reform instincts stopped with Gorbachev's perestroika.

Mr Primakov depends on a coalition of parliamentary support which distrusts the G7 and all its works. It would be impossible for him to heed its recommendations even if he wanted to.

The Government talks of a mission to "save Russia" and adds sagely that any rescue package would "depend on continued economic reform". The words have become a mantra, devoid of meaning. There have not been economic reforms for some time, just bolder and bolder accretions of power by unelected businessmen and bankers, eroding the authority of a physically weakened and increasingly confused Mr Yeltsin.

Western leaders, loath to admit that there might be problems in the world whose resolution is beyond their immediate control, have succumbed to a form of Marxist economic determinism about Russia. Hence the fond belief that the granting or withholding of financial rescue packages will materially affect its conduct.

But our relations with Russia are marked by a far more complex and sometimes dangerous asymmetry. Although rarely able to influence things for the better, our thoughtless interventions can make things worse.

E J Dillon's The Eclipse of Russia, written in 1918, reminds us that the tendency to misunderstand that country is no post-Cold War phenomenon. He writes: "Of all the Slav peoples, the Russian is by far the most complex and puzzling. He often raises expectations which a supernatural entity could hardly fulfil and awakens apprehensions which only a miracle could lay. I have often seen political measures adopted which were bound to defeat the objects for which they were planned."

Exactly so. Our best hope for future dealings with Moscow is that they are too preoccupied with the task of building a government from the ill- assorted ideological oddments on offer to get riled by the G7's pieties. The Potemkin nature of the undertaking is best demonstrated by the fact that one rather important country will be missing: namely Russia itself. Boris Yeltsin craved acceptance at the top table in order to combat nationalist claims that he has weakened the country as a world power. So G7 became G8 at the May summit, only to have "lost" its new member already - the first time a country has voluntarily opted out out of the world's elite club.

Russia has stopped pretending that things are normal or that appearances must be preserved. No official worth his pension rights would show up in London this week claiming to speak for the government line. There is no line. There is not yet a government. When one is formed, it will reflect the demands of those forces in the country which want an end to liberal reforms.

Moscow has not even bothered to object that it is not included in the line-up this time. Articulating those complaints used to be Mr Primakov's speciality as foreign minister, but he is otherwise occupied.

Yesterday I spoke with a prominent Russian financier and asked him how he thought the rouble should be stabilised. "No idea," he said airily. "I don't busy myself with monetary policy. Ask an economist."

Here was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Russia, indifferent to the fate of the national currency. The business oligarchs, whose bastardised capitalism, devoid of social and political responsibility, helped to create this mess. They have insulated themselves, financially and emotionally, from the fate of their countrymen. Having snatched control of the levers of power in the past few months, the speed and destructive force of what followed eludes even their control. Already, they are fielding candidates to replace Mr Yeltsin in the Kremlin. The fight for Russia is beginning anew. Time for the West to watch and wait. We have no other choice.

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