Washington, 19 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. historian and scholar says Russia is experiencing a fundamental crisis of legitimacy which, after the upcoming elections, will likely be resolved in one of two ways -- autocracy or democracy.
James Billington, the Librarian of Congress and a leading expert on Russian culture and history, spoke Tuesday in Washington at a forum sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) called "U.S.-Russia Relations: At the Crossroads." USIP is an independent, organization devoted to promoting research and education on the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Billington says Russia is currently experiencing one of its times of trouble in which a long, authoritarian period has come to an end, but no new authority yet commands sufficient respect to permit them to govern effectively. Those times of trouble in Russia usually last little more than 10 years, he adds. But with the decline of the standard of living in Russia and a "general meltdown" of central economic institutions adding to the political confusion, Billington says the long period of transition appears to be reaching a period of resolution.
Billington says that the path Russia intends to take will likely be clear by this time next year as a result of the forthcoming Russian elections.
"Either they will in effect, revert to the historic Russian pattern of producing an autocracy at the end of times of trouble that is more absolute and centralized than the one that preceded the troubles. Or they may be able to solidify and legitimize, in some way, the formal structures of a democratic rule of law which is a substantial devaluation of powers to federated local governments, which is the formal path they have been following in a uncertain and rather vacillated way up to this time."
Billington says the current conflict in Yugoslavia has dramatically increased the probability, at least in the short term, that Russia will move away from democracy and toward a more authoritative, nationalist form of government.
"The realistic autocratic outcome would, of course, not be a return to communism, but a change of armbands with old communists joining new fascists to produce something like a Russian Milosevic. Fascism in its various and many forms always has arisen on the ruins of a failed democratic experiment, and it can come into power quite legally, as it did in the case of Hitler at the time of the failed Weimar Republic."
Billington says that the geopolitical destabilizing effects of even a "mild approximation of a (Yugoslav President Slobodan) Milosevic regime in Russia" could hardly be exaggerated. Russia's economy already has a capacity to function autocratically, he says, and also has a vast supply of weapons of mass destruction for a principal export product.
Billington also says that with Russia's proximity to regions of great ethnic instability and historic predisposition toward violence -- such as the Balkans and the Caucasus; the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on Russia's southern border; growing Chinese energy needs which make Siberia look more and more attractive, are working toward creating a volatile situation in that region.
"All of this makes increasingly probable either violence and conflict of some kind on the territory of the former Soviet Union or a drift into an authoritarian alliance in Eurasia, either which would be profoundly disturbing to prospects for any kind of future world order."
But Arthur Hartman, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a businessman with current ties in Russia, says he has a far less pessimistic view of what is happening or could happen inside Russia. Hartman, who spoke at the forum, acknowledged that in recent years, the U.S. has done a number of things that have exacerbated American-Russian relations, including NATO expansion and the current conflict in Kosovo. But he says he questions whether any American politician could have taken things in a different direction.
Hartman says it would have been extremely difficult for any politician to say that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland could not join NATO given the especially active and vocal emigrant population in the U.S., coupled with a Secretary of State who happens to be from the former Czechoslovakia -- Madeleine Albright.
In regards to the current conflict in Kosovo, Hartman says the majority of Russians are not getting a clear picture of what is actually happening there. He says Russians are receiving slanted coverage of events in Kosovo, and very little "real information" about ethnic cleansing and mass murders.
Hartman says he is confident of Russia's future as a democratic society primarily because, as a businessman, diplomat and economist, he sees Russia making "real progress" on the road to democracy. He also says an autocracy in Russia would be too hard to maintain for long given its highly educated population and new age communication tools, such as the Internet, which rapidly spread information and news.
"The reality of Russia is that there are generations coming along now. I used to say it would take two generations for any kind of normality, and I don't mean Western normality, just some form of pluralistic self-expression would come to Russia. I now think it will be three generations, mainly because they didn't follow through on some things they started to do. Things are rough in Russia, people have three and four jobs, corruption is ripe but out in the provinces and in Moscow things are beginning to work. People are learning how to run businesses, they are learning how to take advantage of the system."