A Time of Strange Things in Russia

STRANGE things occur in Moscow now. After five years away as a correspondent of TASS, I found no jokes on the streets or in the kitchens where a year ago funny stories were told about our unhappy life in communist times. I cannot dream and forget for a minute the grim reality around me. Others feel the same.

Fruit for our 9-year-old isn't a problem because we don't think about it - basic meals are problem enough. January price increases have, in some cases, jumped 40 to 100 times. Bread costs keep rising, and friends who used to be rather fat are slim.

The most mysterious thing happened to our rubles. After three weeks of very modest living in Moscow, we have none left. I thought we were set for a year.

Two visits to the food shop and one to the market took a month's salary. Food shops in the center of Moscow are diminishing, one reason for shopping lines. Buildings are handed over to "commercial shops." Run by shadow dealers, they sell a miserable variety of drinks, outdated stereos, shirts, and tennis balls at incredible prices. I asked the price of one good looking leather jacket and was told: 21,000 rubles. My superiors in TASS tell me I'm lucky to be getting 1,700 rubles a month, a former bureau ch ief's wages. My wife's mother, an engineer in Siberia, earns 800 rubles a month - the same as a nuclear physicist acquaintance. Who takes care of pensioners? Even the pro-reform paper Arguments and Facts writes: "In 1992, current consumption has been pushed back to the level of the late '50s. To such a speedy fall humans are not prepared - biologically, psychologically, or socially."

Some Russians are not sinking. Amid hungry pensioners and beggars you see vulgar-looking young men buying French brandy, or driving a new BMW. They transfer profits abroad, spend lavishly, and openly provoke envy. Everyone knows success now means you steal from the public sector, re-sell, work financial frauds, or participate in go-between operations. A friend in a reputable foreign car sales company says, "All our clients are mafiosi."

Nor are officials now virtuous. Businessmen say new authorities ask for bribes 15 times higher than in Soviet Moscow.

In some ways, little has changed. High officials sit in the old party headquarters. The nomenclatura is incompetent - third-rate party apparatchiks. The key figure of the Yeltsin government, state secretary Gennady Burbulis, taught Marxism-Leninism not long ago. Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov lives in a luxurious flat built for Leonid Breshnev.

All this angers ordinary Russians who pinned hope on the democrats last August.

I think the authorities have lost control of the situation. The economy is in tatters. The economic reforms sought by prime minister Yegor Gaidar have already failed. Little was achieved save huge price increases. Privatization is slow. Land belongs to the state. Inflation is rampant. There are explosive regional conflicts. In politics there is a strange combination of anti- and pro-communist opposition to Boris Yeltsin. KGB generals and former dissidents are joining against the regime they think is dest roying Russia.

IT is tempting for the West to support the present regime in Russia. President Yeltsin is harming its once great Army and military-industrial and space complex. He won't enforce Russia's national interest, and is eager to join it to the world economy in a way leading to a "deindustrialization" of Russia. The West doesn't want a powerful competitor. Better to make Russia a supplier of energy and natural resources. This role may be fine for Botswana, but never for Russia.

This is a shortsighted policy for the West. Yeltsin may not last long. His regime is an aberration. For reasons of self-preservation, its fall will be a matter of months. Nobody knows when exactly, or what will cause it. It may be economic collapse, mass unemployment, fierce strikes, price hikes, or mutiny in the Army.

Pragmatic reformers like Vice President Alexander Rutskoi won't be able to stop this. Their time has passed. Russia needs more stabilization than such reforms offer - and a restoration of law and order to thwart a dangerous disintegration.

It is in the West's interest to deal with a self-supporting Russia - though Russia's national character may mean its economy differs from US or European models, much as does the Japan's, or South Korea's. Nobody except Russians can run their country, feed themselves, and find and exploit their resources. Need it be said Russia won't compete with the West for at least 15 years?

If the present regime survives, I'll probably be a translator in an American army guarding immense nuclear facilities. This is the last thing I want.

Instead, I hope Russia, always closer to Europe than Asia, will realize and enlarge the dream of General Charles de Gaulle by making Europe truly great - from the Atlantic coast to Russia's pacific coast.

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