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When despotism may be best

Douglas Hurd, in his New Year message to diplomatic staff, said: "The transformation towards democracy in Russia is not irreversible."

Mr Hurd did not exaggerate. This week it is looking as if the serious possibilities for the future of the Russian Federation consist of a restoration of despotism, on the one hand, and a collapse into anarchy, on the other. The transformation at the moment is away from democracy - in two directions.

Significant vestiges of the multinational democratic experiment that began with glasnost under Gorbachev remain, but in a rather disconcerting way. Glasnost itself is by far the most significant of these vestiges. Yeltsin, who rose by glasnost, is tryin g to rein it in, but with limited success. It was glasnost that destroyed the old Soviet Union and now threatens the Russian Federation. Glasnost inhibits the revival of centralised despotism, but accelerates the tendencies towards anarchy.

In the media of the securely democratic world, it is taken for granted that freedom of expression and democracy are invariably mutually supportive forces. But, at least in societies in transition, this is not necessarily the case. The New York Times in an editorial this week reflected Western assumptions when it wrote: "The political dissent is healthy, and the unfettered broadcasting from battle areas around Grozny is welcome confirmation that Russian reporting has recovered from Soviet censorship."

This "unfettered broadcasting from battle areas" makes it more likely that the Chechen attempt at secession from the Russian Federation will succeed. And if it does, other secessions will follow, and attempted secessions of minorities within the new seceding states.

Americans, in particular, might reflect on how the government of Abraham Lincoln handled the greatest secessionist enterprise known to history. Lincoln ignored the Supreme Court and censured the news. And Lincoln was acting in the tradition of the American revolution itself. From the very beginning - in the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 - American revolutionaries used violence against all who ventured to disagree with them. The American Revolution was itself a civil war, to a far greater degree than hagiographical retrospect suggests.

Boris Yeltsin, obviously, is no Abraham Lincoln. But his lack of resemblance resides not in Yeltsin's ruthlessness, but in the feebleness with which his government and armed forces are seen as responding to the secessionist effort in Chechnya, and to se c essionist tendencies in others parts of the former Soviet Union.

It seems probable that Yeltsin will fall - quite soon if his forces fail to take Grozny, only a little later if they take it and remain stuck there - while the Chechen guerrilla continues in the mountains and stimulates other guerrillas elsewhere, and w h ile the Russian media continues to report the whole mess with unfettered glasnost.

Which is the lesser evil, in these forbidding circumstances: the return of a more or less despotic central government, with strict censorship, or the anarchy of multiple secessions?

I lean to the view that the former is probably the lesser evil, under the conditions of the former Russian Empire. Most people will not have a choice in the matter: they will find one set of conditions or the other imposed on them, without their being consulted, either by the centralisers or the various secessionist leaders. Also, despotism and anarchy are not diametrically opposite types of polity. Anarchy is also despotism, disseminated. The difference between the two types is not one of essence, but of scale. Do you prefer to live under a large despotism or a small one?

The reasons for preferring even centralised despotism to anarchy were set out nearly 350 years ago by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. Hobbes was right, for the conditions of his own time in Britain, and similar conditions apply over much of the world today. Anarchy - disseminated despotism with multiple disputes over borders - involves endless civil wars, with an accumulation of human misery likely to exceed the deprivations of liberty to be expected under all but the most manic of centralising despots , such as Stalin and Hitler.

There are certainly millions of people in former Yugoslavia who would prefer to be living under the autocracy of Tito, than amid the anarchy that has succeeded him; and many millions in the former Soviet Union who think nostalgically of Brezhnev's good old days.

These considerations have some relevance to how the West should deal with Yeltsin's successors. At some point, those successors have got to be tougher than Yeltsin has been, if the Russian Federation is not to disintegrate into the protracted anarchy andcivil war of multiple secessions. That is to say, if competent successors are to hold the Federation together, they will have to behave in ways the public and the media in the West will not like - especially the media.

For if one thing is certain, it is that glasnost and the integrity of the Russian Federation are incompatible, just as glasnost and the integrity of the Soviet Union proved incompatible under Gorbachev. The very thing that made Gorbachev so acceptable inthe West was the thing that did most to precipitate the disintegration of the polity over which he tried to preside. Yeltsin inherited from Gorbachev, along with glasnost, the impossibility of averting the disintegration of what remained of the former Russian Empire.

We shall know that there is a government in Moscow again when censorship is restored and made effective throughout the Russian Federation. But of course such a government will, for that reason, be anathema to the Western media, both for doctrinal and professional reasons. It will be depicted as "retreating from democracy" whereas it will really be trying to retreat from anarchy.

Western governments will be under pressure from the media, and public opinion, to isolate such a government. If governments yield to this, they will weaken the Moscow government, and strengthen all the internal opposition elements, thereby accelerating

the advent of anarchy.

We in the West are conditioned to react with horror and indignation to the idea of despotic government, and with uncomprehending incuriosity to the idea of anarchy. We are apt to award brownie points to other societies in proportion as they "measure up" to the parts of our own heritage which we rightly regard as precious: democracy, freedom of expression, the rule of law.

But for those who did not inherit any of these things, the attempt to imitate and assimilate all of them at once may be fatal. We should keep that in mind in our dealings with the government of China, as well as the successors of Boris Yeltsin, probably fairly early in the coming year.