President Boris Yeltsin’s firing of his fifth Prime Minister in seventeen months and Russia’s renewed war in the Caucasus are stark signs of his regime’s instability, desperation and “agony,” the term often used in Moscow. These developments are also a reminder that the Clinton Administration’s Russia policy has failed. For seven years the Administration has repeatedly promised that Yeltsin was the best hope for democracy and that US policies would help post-Communist Russia make the transition to a democratic capitalism and integrate it into the West. Instead, Russia is impoverished and US-Russian relations are at their lowest point in a decade. Since none of the Administration’s long- or short-term goals have been achieved and most of its policies have been counterproductive, Russia policy should be a subject of serious debate in the US presidential campaign.
George W. Bush’s chief foreign policy aide, Condoleezza Rice, has already indicated that Bush will make a major issue of the failures of the Clinton/Gore Russia policy. But although Rice castigates the Administration for abetting Russian corruption in the name of reform and for equating democracy with Yeltsin, she fails to propose an alternative policy, concluding instead that the United States must wait a generation until real reformers appear in Russia. That’s not policy–it’s a defeatist, condescending attitude.
Vice President Gore is deeply implicated in the Administration’s failed policy, and his vulnerability is highlighted by the collapsing “Washington consensus,” which has underpinned Russia policy. Pundits and policy-makers who were boosters of the Administration’s policies and apologists for Yeltsin’s regime now criticize both. Indictments have recently appeared in publications that long played those roles–for example, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist and think tanks across Washington. Even World Bank vice president and chief economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that the IMF’s dogmatic policies should be renounced. What were once considered dissident views about US Russia policy–as have appeared in magazines like The Nation in the nineties–are now flooding the mainstream.
Partly because of Gore’s vulnerability on this issue, foreign affairs may take on an unusual role in this election. Not only did he play a key role as chairman of the ballyhooed Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, in which much of the government-to-government business between the two countries was handled, but there is direct testimony that Gore suppressed US intelligence reports revealing the corruption of top Yeltsin officials, including former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Gore is also exposed because of the timing of Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for June 2000. If, as is widely believed in Moscow, Yeltsin and his inner circle (known as The Family) try to cancel or steal the election–as may be more likely now that former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has lent his personal popularity to a powerful electoral coalition–it will further discredit the policies with which Gore is associated. And if the elections go ahead in a fair manner, anti-Yeltsin, possibly anti-American, forces may win.
Certainly Yeltsin can be counted on to produce more political drama in the months to come. The appointment of the head of what was formerly the KGB, Vladimir Putin, as Prime Minister–and Yeltsin’s anointed heir–is the most telling sign yet that the President and his inner circle are considering unconstitutional measures to cling to power. Among the measures widely discussed in Moscow are using the war in Dagestan as a pretext for imposing emergency rule or creating a union with Belarus that would lead to a new Constitution benefiting Yeltsin.
What drives these scenarios is the most explosive factor in Kremlin politics today: the regime’s fear of being held responsible for the collapse and looting of Russia. (In his announcement upon joining the coalition, Primakov offered immunity for Presidents after they leave office–an obvious allusion to this fear.) The Family is desperate to secure a friendly successor to ward off such retribution as corruption trials. Meanwhile, Swiss prosecutors are closing in on Yeltsin’s entourage. The head of the Kremlin’s Property Department, reported to control $600 billion worth of real estate, and twenty-two other top Yeltsin officials are under investigation for money laundering and other financial crimes. Members of Yeltsin’s family may be implicated. Putin is the regime’s man not only because he is tough–his willingness to intensify the war in the Caucasus is one test–but, more important, he may also be implicated in the corruption and thus have a personal stake in stopping any investigations.
Recently the State Department declared that US policy must now focus on “Russian reform and the policies of the Russian government, not the personalities.” Nice words, but a bit late after seven years of Clinton/Gore cheerleading for the Yeltsin regime. A new policy would begin with the Administration strongly reminding Yeltsin that a Russian leader leaving office in accordance with the Constitution, for the first time in the country’s history, is the best hope for Russia’s fragile democracy. Let the people choose new leaders in fair elections as scheduled–for Parliament this December and for the presidency in June.
Whatever the outcome in Moscow, America needs a new Russia policy. That debate has yet to begin, which is why all presidential candidates must set out their proposals. As this magazine has warned since 1993, the missionary nature of the Clinton/Gore policy has contributed to the disaster in Russia. Without a new, less dogmatic Russia policy, the disaster will only deepen.