Russian Adversity: Echo of a Revolution?

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Bits of tragicomedy mark Russia's descent into adversity. In Shikotan, one of four small northern Japanese islands seized and colonized by the Soviet Union after World War II, residents have threatened to rent the island to Japanese businessmen unless Moscow fixes the decrepit electric power system. The region of Kamchatka in eastern Siberia has appealed for United Nations aid to buy fuel after weeks of power cuts and almost nonexistent heating in the subzero weather, abandoning hope of help from the Kremlin.

The emergency is wider than that. It has raised the question of the Russian Federation falling apart, or of revolution - a new 1917. The International Monetary Fund has refused to throw good money after bad, suspending a $17 billion bailout package because the government cannot collect taxes or pay wages and is heading for hyperinflation by printing rubles to pay its bills. The banking system has practically collapsed.

The financial crisis that has swallowed people's savings and cut consumption was not brought on by the Asian contagion. It is a homemade disaster. Russia cannot feed itself and has been forced to ask the United States for food to be sure of getting through the winter because the politicians have ruined agriculture. The communist-controlled parliament has almost totally blocked land reform through privatization, leaving the old collective farms producing too little while also, as before, bleeding the treasury for subsidies.

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The privatization of industry was largely rigged to enrich insiders. Production has sunk from year to year. Much of it is done for barter rather than cash and in a slough of debt. Investment has vanished in speculation and massive flight of capital abroad put at $100 billion. There is no domestic credit and the absence of clear property law and investment codes, coupled with judicial uncertainty and the ubiquitous mafia, are keeping foreign investors' wallets shut.

In theory, such utter public failure and private misery could well lead to revolution. But there is no sign of another 1917. For one thing, there is no Lenin with a coherent ideology (however false) and a ruthless organization to impose it on a largely passive and illiterate population. Today's Russians are educated and show no desire for a strong man to bring back a Soviet-style straightjacket. The press is relatively free, so is speech. People prefer freedom. Nor is it the legendary Russian patience that is keeping them from storming through the streets in frustration. They are making do in a million different personal ways. Despair could still drive them wild, but not yet.

How about Russia breaking up? It stretches across 11 time zones. Some 30 million of its nearby 150 million population are not even Russian. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its 15 component republics went their independent ways. Under Yeltsin's 1993 constitution, Russia became a federal state, loosening centuries of strict central control by czars and Soviets. The Russian Federation comprises 21 republics, 55 provinces, 11 autonomous districts and the two great cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1996 and 1997 they all for the first time elected their own governors, mayors, and councils.

Now, the crisis has put them on their own, free not to send taxes, gold, and food to the center as it fails to fulfill its obligations. Moscow has no recourse. It is from the regions and not the center that many army garrisons get food, fuel, and even wages. Regions appeal for help from abroad and conduct their own foreign trade.

Russia today is a confederation but, like the American confederation, its members are, except for Chechnya, not minded to secede. Too many interests hold them together. The hope, and indeed the likelihood, is that they will survive this turbulent time and ultimately, like the early US, build a democratic state from the bottom up.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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