A fateful crossroads in American-Russian relations is being obscured by Bill Clinton’s impeachment and war against Iraq. How the US government responds to Russia at this moment of its greatest economic and human distress since World War II is likely to determine relations between the two former cold war rivals for many years to come.
Russia is in the throes of an economic disaster. Seven years of depression have halved its GDP, decimated its banking system and currency, eroded essential infrastructures of modern life and left the state bankrupt and saddled with more than $150 billion of foreign debt. Some 70 to 80 percent of Russians now live precariously below or barely above the subsistence level, their wages unpaid, bank savings frozen, money in hand greatly devalued and welfare provisions evaporating.
And yet the Clinton Administration, despite having enthusiastically bankrolled every previous government formed under President Boris Yeltsin, even one that waged genocidal war in Chechnya, is refusing Moscow’s pleas for financial help. The main reason given, routinely echoed in US editorials, is that the new Russian Cabinet headed by Yevgeny Primakov is abandoning “reform”–in particular, the purportedly free-market, rigidly monetarist policies that Washington and its primary lending agency, the IMF, have made a condition of aid for nearly six years.
The Primakov government is indeed moving away from US-backed policies–not because it is antireform or antimarket but because those measures have greatly contributed to Russia’s deepening crisis. Desperately seeking ways to save its people, revive production and stabilize the country, Primakov’s Cabinet is adopting forms of state regulation and deficit spending akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-Depression reforms of the thirties. But not even this explicit appeal to America’s own experience has softened Washington’s hard-line stance. No less incongruous, the Clinton Administration maintains that any new financial aid would be lost to corruption, even though many of its Russian protégés previously in power, the “radical reformers,” were both inept and corrupt. In contrast, Primakov’s team didn’t create Russia’s meltdown and hasn’t stolen anything.
In truth, Russia’s economic collapse is also the collapse of Clinton’s Russia policy. We urgently need a new one based on a very different principle–not the intrusive, ideological conditions imposed by US and IMF officials but on the prescient wisdom expressed by George Kennan almost a half-century ago. Foreseeing the eventual end of Communist rule, he wrote: “Let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions…. Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner.” Today, it means letting Russians, not our State and Treasury departments, decide what constitutes reform in Russia.
A new US policy would therefore have a less arrogant purpose. Instead of continuing the inherently doomed and dangerous crusade to transform Russia into a replica of America, it would aid that stricken nation’s economic recovery and political stabilization. Discarding litmus papers, the United States should support any Russian government that pursues those goals as long as it does so by promoting the well-being of ordinary citizens and without abrogating the ten-year-old but still fragile process of democratization.