Moscow, 21 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - The great Greek poet, Constantine Cavafis, wrote a poem once that explains, not why a country as great as Russia is collapsing; but why it's so easy for westerners like U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and her counterparts at NATO, not to take the warnings they hear from Russia seriously.
Cavafis describes the way in which an ancient state's rulers stopped everything they were doing to wait for the arrival of conquering barbarians. Suddenly, unease filled the capital, and the streets emptied. Scouts had arrived from the frontier to say there were no barbarians.
"What will become of us now, without barbarians", the poem ends; "those people were a kind of solution."
This week in Paris, presidential campaigner, and erstwhile champion of Russia's army, Alexander Lebed, claimed the Russian people will soon follow the example of the Bulgarians, rioting in the streets to force an unpopular government to new elections.
Never mind that what has happened in Bulgaria is a revolt by a population pauperized by hyper-inflation. In Moscow, the same people are the staunchest defenders of the Government, as Lebed realizes, whenever he speaks of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov as a dangerous rival for the presidency.
In Russia, neither poverty, which is locked away in the countryside, nor inflation, which is locked inside the banking system, threatens to overthrow President Yeltsin's order.
Lebed has also explained to the French why there is no threat either from the Russian army whose soldiers he claims to represent. The army, Lebed said, "didn't count any longer." What protects the regime instead, he added, is the Interior Ministry, with whose commander, police general Anatoly Kulikov, Lebed has fought more than once, and lost every time.
What's needed to give the semblance of statehood to this self-serving dilapidation is a barbarian on the border. An expansionist NATO fills the bill nicely. But Lebed has also explained why there is no reason for NATO to change course. He told President Clinton in Moscow a year ago there was no reason to regard him as an opponent of NATO plans. He claimed more recently in Washington that Russia's domestic opposition to NATO was trumped up by Yeltsin.
If the devil NATO doesn't know behaves like this, then the devils which NATO does know in the Kremlin can hardly dissuade the Alliance from its purpose. NATO expansion is an insurance policy that Russia's inability to project its interests, outside its borders, will last as long as there are Poles, Hungarians or Czechs with interests and ambitions of their own.
The men who inhabit the Kremlin have said enough about not wanting those barbarians on the border. Nothing new can be added to this between now and NATO's decision in July. That's because Yeltsin, as well as those who propose to succeed him, have already convinced NATO they need those barbarians on the border. Another way of saying this, to recall the sense of the Cavafis poem, is that, in order to stay in power themselves, the men in the Kremlin need the waiting.