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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Apocalypse Not Quite Yet

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An ever-increasing stream of bad news from Russia has convinced many in both that country and the West that Moscow is on the verge of apocalyptic developments, with some predicting a return to Soviet times and others the collapse of the Russian Federation

But such judgments reflect both a Russian penchant for discussing the future of that country in either-or terms and Western expectations that the transition from communism would be easy and quick. And as such, most if not all of them are almost certainly too extreme.

Not only are the most dramatic of these statements without any real content -- Moscow cannot simply return to the past, and Russia in some form or other will continue to exist -- but they detract attention from the ways the Russian government and the Russian people have coped with crises in the past and are likely to be able to do so once again.

Consequently, while Russia does indeed face some truly difficult times in the coming months, predictions about its future that are cast in such stark terms tend to get in the way of analysis of developments there rather than illuminate what is actually likely to happen.

During the past few days, the news from Moscow has been truly disturbing. On Wednesday, the Russian authorities announced that prices had gone up 43 percent in the first half of September, a rate that already can be described as hyperinflation. And on that news, the ruble fell back against the dollar to a rate of 15 to 1.

Still worse, several of Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's appointees indicated that they favored printing yet more money, a strategy that might assuage the anger of many Russians who have not been paid in months but one that will likely harm the Russian economy and certainly cost it any chance for outside assistance.

Also on Wednesday, Primakov announced plans to limit the ability of the Russian media to cover the activities of the government.

Under new rules, government officials will not be able to talk to the press until the new government is formed unless they have specific permission from the prime minister's chief of staff, Admiral Yuri Zubakov, a longtime veteran of Soviet foreign intelligence.

Claiming to be a supporter of freedom of speech, Primakov nonetheless asserted that "openness doesn't have anything in common with attempts at biased coverage," language that at best recalls the statements of the last years of the Gorbachev era.

And on Thursday, two additional developments only added to the concerns of Russians and non-Russians alike. President Boris Yeltsin ordered increased security in advance of what many expect will be country-wide mass protests on October 7.

Meanwhile, the independent Public Opinion poll group reported that 92 percent of all Russians report that the crisis in Russia since the effective devaluation of the ruble in August had affected their lives, with half saying the impact had been drastic.

This list can be easily expanded, and indeed virtually every day there are fresh reports about the collapse of the Russian banking system, the difficulties Primakov is facing in putting together a new government, and the suffering of the Russian people.

And as a result, and again virtually every day, the press in Moscow and the West is faced with the direst of warnings about what will happen next.

Some of these warnings may ultimately prove true. But the ways in which they are usually delivered have the effect of obscuring three important facts.

First, despite everything that has happened to them, most Russians continue to cope, eking out an existence in ways that would challenge many other peoples.

Second, precisely as the official and public structures in the country continue to fail, many Russians are working out arrangements such as barter agreements that make it possible for them to survive and in some cases even prosper in the midst of extraordinary difficulties.

And third, Primakov's abilities to work with the majority of the Duma, something that will give him more authority even at the cost of offending reformers and the West, should not be discounted.

On the one hand, such arrangements will make it easier for Russians to accept some of the difficulties they now face. And on the other, they will likely allow Primakov to act in ways that may purchase some temporary stability.

That by itself will not solve the problems Russia faces, but it may mean that the apocalypse will be put off for a little while, an achievement that sometimes may be the best any leader can hope for.

Indeed, that appears to be the conclusion of one of the wisest observers of the situation. In Washington this week, Czech President Vaclav Havel suggested that developments in Russia were not so serious or dangerous as many thought.

Russia, Havel continued, is "in a very complicated situation" and is likely to remain there for "50 to 100 years." But Havel asked his listeners to remember that "it is much better to have an ill Russia rather than a healthy Soviet Union" because the former is much less of a threat to itself or to others than the latter invariably was.