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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Strong And Weak

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 6 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's repeated statements that he will work to build a "strong" state have gained him enormous support among many Russians weary of the disorder that has prevailed in their country over the last decade.

At the same time, however, his remarks have generated equally great concern among many others there and in the West about the impact such a new state might have on Russia's chances tomove toward becoming a democratic society in which the state protects rather than tramples on human rights.

But perhaps most fundamentally, Putin's comments have reignited ongoing debates in both Russia and the West about whether the state he now heads is weak or strong, about what such assertions mean, and about what policy consequences the outcome of this debate has for Russia, her neighbors and the world.

Those who argue that the Russian state is weak point to the government's inability to enforce a coherent policy line across all its institutions. They note the limits on the ability of Moscow to enforce its laws, collect taxes or pay its employees on a regular basis across the entire acountry. And they call attention to the decay or even collapse of many key institutions, including the forced downsizing of the Russian army.

Some who argue that the Russian state is weak go even further. They argue that Russia is now a "failed state," a term used to describe countries where the nominal central government lacks the power and authority to give orders to its own bureaucracy or to subordinate regional authorities. And they suggest that Moscow must somehow rebuild state authority or face a future even more dire than the present.

Among those taking the "weak" side in this debate, some argue that this reconstitution of state power is so important that both Russians and the West must tolerate significant deviations from democratic norms. But others, who have concluded that the Russian state is weak, nonetheless insist that the rebuilding of the Russian state must stay within democratic norms during this process or face another kind of disaster.

That disaster, these analysts argue, would be the reconstitution of an authoritarian regime in Russia, which would be likely to trample on democratic liberties at home and to pursue a far more aggressive policy toward Russia's neighbors, particularly the former Soviet republics and the three Baltic states. And in support of their argument they point to the policies of earlier failed states, including post-World War I Germany.

Those who argue that the Russian state is strong, on the other hand, point to a very different set of realities. They note the reviving strength of the Russian military in Chechnya. They describe the government's power over the media, over central and regional debates, and especially Putin's ability to define the terms of public debate in advance of the presidential poll on March 26.

And they argue that the Russian state is already reviving and that the disorder the "weak" state advocates point to was never as great as the latter group said and is quickly being overcome by Putin and his new team. Indeed, most of those who argue that the Russian state is already strong support what the acting Russian president is doing.

But as in the case of the advocates of the "weak" position, some of those who believe the Russian state is already strong argue that neither the Russian political system nor the West should tolerate violations of democratic norms and human rights by those who say they must rebuild a "strong" Russian state. Indeed, this group suggests, the Russian state may be in danger of becoming too strong for both democracy and peace.

And in support of their position, they point to the new militancy in Russian political discourse since the beginning of the Chechen war about Russia's neighbors and about the West's involvement both there and in Russia itself.

Just like the blind men in the famous story about the elephant, each of these positions captures an important truth about the Russian state today. On the one hand, it is far weaker than earlier Russian states, in terms of its coordinating ability. But on the other hand, it is far stronger, at least in terms of the capacity of some of its institutions, than some both in Russia and the West appear to believe.

Taken together, the two sides in this debate point to the importance of moves to strengthen the government's coordinating role as well as to the significance of having some of its institutions weaken still further. But the two sides in this discussion also highlight something far more important.

Read carefully, both the "weak" and the "strong" positions suggest that if the Russian state tries to recover its strength by sacrificing human rights and democratic procedures, any victories Moscow does achieve will be shortlived. And such Pyrrhic victories almost certainly will result in fresh disasters for Russia, her neighbors and the world as a whole.