In the wake of last year's financial crash, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was briefly brought back into power. Much could be written about Al Gore's pal Chernomyrdin and corruption in Russia. Suffice it to say that markets greeted Chernomyrdin's revival by dumping rubles but also by frantically buying up stock in the natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, Chernomyrdin's pet company. Chernomyrdin's response to the ruble meltdown was to advocate an "economic dictatorship." Ordinary Russians wondered, quite sensibly, what the difference was between an economic dictatorship and a dictatorship.
"Calm down, world," is the response of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Along with Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, Talbott has been the architect of Clinton's Russia policy. "We have been aware from the beginning that crime and corruption are a huge problem in Russia and a huge obstacle to Russian reform," he says. "It is going to take decades [and] the problem will only get worse if you isolate Russia." To hear Talbott, Summers, Gore, the IMF and the rest of the gang tell it, all these years we have been "engaging Russia"--and the only two choices are to "engage" Russia or to "isolate" Russia.
But there are all sorts of ways to engage Russia that fall well short of subsidizing and apologizing for a corrupt regime that the Russian people themselves despise. Probably the best thing we can do is apologize and set the record straight. We could also change our aid policies. Let's have no more vague multibillion-dollar IMF loans--loans often tied to dogmatic economic scoldings--that evaporate without a trace. Instead, we could invest in concrete projects in the national interest of both Russia and America: upgrading safety at Russia's nuclear power plants leaps to mind, as does improving the country's weapons security. If we want to invest more specifically in Russia's economic infrastructure we could set up a massive educational exchange.
That would be engagement. What we have offered instead is an enormous check--one that comes with the understanding that we are giving so much money because we can't be bothered to spend the time trying to understand Russia's national needs and problems or even worrying about whether the aid is soaked up by FIMACO, oligarchs and USAID's clique of pet "consulting" corporations.
In the "who lost Russia?" debates there is one last argument. It is the trump card, quoted axiomatically as a truism: "Russia was never ours to lose." One strength of this argument is that it's impossible to refute--we'll never know now, will we? But it's defeatist. Moreover, it ignores the enormous moral authority we had in post-Soviet Russia. Our media and governments had for years appealed to the people of the Soviet Union over the heads of the Kremlin. It was hard work. By paying Russians this respect, we in turn earned their respect. Now it's all squandered.
In the United States, talk of Russian corruption is forcing a healthy debate on a reluctant White House. Some of the reporting and politicking may be sloppy, but it's still democracy in action. Not so in Russia. Here, it's axiomatic that Russia is corrupt. But they know we helped to build the system and to apologize for it; they think our cries of outrage are late and insincere because they are so perfectly timed for a US presidential election season. Ordinary Russians are also feeling defensive because they know that they are collectively complicit. Russians often cite the old chestnut that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. Russia re-elected Yeltsin knowing his regime was corrupt; it was a choice they agonized over, but few Americans commiserated then--we were too busy cheerleading and ignoring how the corrupt Yeltsin team had billions of dollars to spread around and a chokehold on all television coverage. Many Russians also feel they are "corrupt" in that doing business involves evading taxes--which remain crushingly high at Washington's insistence. Rather than seriously oppose the looting of the budget, we have for years insisted that Russia collect more taxes to make up the difference. (And money kept hidden from tax authorities often must be parked abroad, in places like the Bank of New York.)
Even so, if the Mabetex/Bank of New York stories had broken just six months ago, the Communists would be baying and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who wants to replace Yeltsin, would be doing his populist best. Now, however, the opposition is curiously muted. The reason? Fear that a cornered Yeltsin will lash out.