Russia: not Apocalypse, but Purgatory

By , Harley Balzer, director of the Russian Studies Program at Georgetown University, recently returned from a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

VIRTUALLY every educated Muscovite these days has a scenario for "Weimar Russia." People expect imminent outbreaks of public disorder, followed by a dictatorship.

That Russia is in a desperate economic crisis with major social consequences is true. On this page, Sergei Latyshev presents a graphic account of the demoralization resulting from wild inflation, breakdown of production and distribution, and economic dislocation. TV shows like Nevzorov's "600 Seconds" include regular coverage of "sensational" suicides by pensioners. All agree "things cannot go on this way." But what are the options?

The Russian future might be cast as a choice between "apocalypse now" and "purgatory forever." Many sense the possibility of an imminent crisis - economic collapse, mass hunger, another attempted coup, the rise of a nationalist dictatorship. Careless individuals even say "anything" would be better than the disintegration they are experiencing.

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Suppose the anniversary of the August 1991 coup was marked by another putsch attempt. Putsch leaders might establish themselves in power in Moscow and control the broadcast media. They might dredge up lists prepared in 1991 and arrest potential opponents. But elsewhere in Russia? The military and security forces are no more unified now than in 1991. That would be a repeat of 1991 - with many regional declarations of independence, this time in the Russian Federation. Advocates of a restored USSR might be left with "socialism in one city."

So much for apocalypse. What about purgatory? Can the nation bear the tragedy to which it is subjected? No one knows the answer, but there is not any choice. The economy can't be restored to its former centralized rigidity.

No one can solve the problems quickly. Given the current situation, it is probably not even possible to ameliorate conditions to any appreciable degree in less than two to four years. Yet most people understand that there is little choice but to persevere.

Politicians talk about the next battle, the next parliamentary session, the next meeting being decisive. But few things are going to be decisively resolved any time soon. The strength (and frustration) of democracy is the very absence of decisiveness.

Everyone thought things had changed decisively after the August coup. But the mid-level administrative system remains. By borrowing from each other, enterprises postpone real changes, layoffs, or bankruptcy. Now some say the nation can't take any more shock therapy - when it has hardly begun. Much of the recent economic dislocation is not due to economic policies, but to disruptions in distribution resulting from the USSR's breakup.

The resistance is doomed, but it can prolong its death rattle for a long while, making the transformation lengthier and harder. The chief obstacle is not a conscious, organized movement opposed to change. Rather it is that old thinking and habits of dependence on the center are deeply rooted even among those who genuinely desire democracy and a market. They don't know how to get there except by appealing to someone to do it for them - issue a decree, pass a law, give an order, and most important, sign a document.

Every interest group, including the military, is resorting to confrontational tactics in an effort to bolster claims on increasingly scarce resources. Yeltsin has found it convenient to promise them whatever they demand. But the promises cannot possibly be fulfilled, and demands for apartments, higher salaries, and other material benefits have come up against stark poverty.

Nationalists say Russia is a rich nation with a talented, well-educated population. But if the oil, gas, gold, diamonds and other natural resources were flowing freely, the Soviet regime might still be in power. The country is an ecological disaster zone, all the "cheap" resources have been tapped, and it will take years to generate substantial returns from what remains. The talented and highly educated people were rarely taught to think for themselves or depend on themselves. This does not mean they can 't do these things, but like people everywhere, they will have to learn.

Russia may not explode, but nor will it get instantly better - and it may get worse. Must that lead to violence, or to Yeltsin himself becoming a dictator? It could, but it does not have to. A transition may be thought of as a complex political game within a game. The real key is to keep the players willing to play, rather than tipping over the board.

The political game during the recent Congress of People's Deputies ended in a compromise: The Gaidar cabinet persevered and managed to keep their program mainly intact. The opposition succeeded in creating a crisis and forcing the inclusion of some new faces advocating a slower pace of reform. The government thought of these concessions as the last ones they would make to the conservatives. But success in getting concession emboldened the opposition to demand more. Meanwhile, irresponsible comments by mi litary and resurrection of the KGB do little to inspire confidence among the democrats or potential foreign partners.

The current political struggle could be the death throes of another "provisional government." Or it could be politics as usual for a new Russia, replete with chaos and corruption. That participants continue to play, even while saying they have the option of kicking over the board after the next move, is a promising sign.

Using a metaphor is not meant to trivialize the suffering in the USSR. It is a genuine human tragedy. But it does not have to become an apocalypse. It took Joseph Stalin 10 years of warfare against the peoples of the USSR to create the Soviet system. No one should expect its dismantling to be rapid, simple, or painless.

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