RUSSIA'S parliamentary elections of Dec. 12, 1993, have spawned in the US media and foreign-policy bureaucracy the array of self-obsessed hand-wringing that always seems to accompany ``big news'' in the Russian Federation. Only in America could an election abroad be analyzed in terms of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of foreign aid. Only in America could the burdens of Russia's latest revolution be lifted from the backs of Russians onto the shoulders of US taxpayers.
Our tendency to see world events as the results of American political behavior meshes quite perversely with the inclination of some Russians to wait impatiently for the ``authorities'' to solve their problems for them. More than once during my official travels through the former Soviet Union coordinating US assistance, Cabinet officials presented me lists of items (thousands of tractors, millions of tons of corn) they expected me to deliver, since Moscow was no longer the provider of largess.
The dynamic at play is nearly perfect in its absurdity: Americans feel responsible for the course of reform in Russia; and Russians all too often are willing to let us have it. Unless we change the dynamic, we will experience a ``Who Lost Russia?'' debate in this country before the century is out, a debate every bit as unenlightened and destructive as the ``Who Lost China?'' mindlessness of some 40 years ago.
The success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the polls has provided Washington its latest excuse to feel bad about its ``handling'' of reform in Russia. One high-ranking US official says that it is now incumbent upon us to find ``less shock and more therapy for the Russian people.'' Much as we blamed the United Nations for the fiasco involving US forces in Somalia, now we are pointing fingers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for having insisted that Russia control bank credits and subsidies as a precondition for massive financial assistance.
We ought to acknowledge one fundamental truth: The Russian people and their leaders own 100 percent of the responsibility for replacing communism with a more humane, more productive system. The vast majority of Russians - including those who voted for Mr. Zhirinovsky - have no interest in returning criminals to power. As the Russian people have demonstrated repeatedly throughout their history, they are quite capable of enormous sacrifice. Yet much of what has occurred since the breakup of the Soviet Union - increased lawlessness, corruption, and instability - is no more acceptable to Russian voters than to Americans.
Outside assistance can help. Indeed, ``know how'' technical assistance provided by Americans, Europeans, and Japanese already has helped to lay the groundwork for economic and political liberalization in the Russian Federation. If we want our assistance to have a maximum impact without relieving Russians of both the pain and privilege of self-determination, we should adhere to the following course:
1. Retain strict conditionality, especially with respect to cash transfers by international financial institutions such as the IMF. The IMF's operations are underwritten by taxpayers around the world. For the administration to ask the IMF to ``lighten up'' on Russia is to ask the American taxpayer to take a real flyer on a government that continues to create inflation by subsidizing communist-era economic dinosaurs.
2. Establish in Moscow a multilateral reform impact fund to support the transitional social-welfare needs of municipalities and regions undergoing actual economic reform and restructuring. The fund should work in close coordination with the Ministry for Social Protection but should not be governed by it. Local governmental and nongovernmental organizations would receive ruble grants to establish and strengthen social safety nets.
3. Humanitarian ``in kind'' assistance - medicines, medical equipment, food, temporary shelter, for example - likewise should be carefully targeted. This type of bilateral US government aid should focus on transitional locales, especially places where American businesses are actively engaged in joint ventures with privatizing Russian industries.
4. Technical help should continue to be the centerpiece of the bilateral US effort. The administration has chosen wisely to institute ``enterprise funds'' under private-sector management to spur the creation of small and medium private enterprises in Russia, precisely the sort of grassroots economic activities that can, in time, provide real job opportunities.
The Clinton administration has, with one notable exception, pursued essentially the same aid strategy as its predecessor. The exception has to do with implementation. Although the administration employs a very capable official endowed with the title of coordinator, real power seems to have devolved to the Agency for International Development. AID's administrator, Brian Atwood, deserves much credit for his intention to reinvigorate his agency, but Russia is not the ideal environment for replicating the third-world foreign-aid programs with which AID is experienced. Absent strong White House support for the coordinator, other agencies with much to contribute - the Peace Corps, Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the US Information Agency, to name four -
will find themselves increasingly blocked from access to what AID describes in its promotional literature as ``its own money.''
Even if our coffers were flush with money, we could not afford to make Russia's problems our own. We can help on the margins and in ways that neither offend the recipients nor make them feel less than responsible for their own futures. It took communism 70 years to compound and perfect a millennium of Russian feudalism. It will take decades of hard work for Russians to build productive, humane systems. To suggest that a parliamentary election somehow reflects a failure on the part of the West is to proclaim not the end of history, but its irrelevance. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.