Forecasting Russia's Near Future

IN their crisply written, stimulating new book, ``Russia 2010 and What It Means for the World,'' Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson attempt two tasks: First, they discuss and analyze all key factors - economic, political, social, cultural, ethnic, and international - that will impact the various futures of Russia over the next 16 years.

Second, employing the approach of ``scenario planning'' - a method for thinking about the future used by certain large oil companies - they sketch out four likely paths of development for Russia, which they dub ``Muddling Down,'' ``Two-Headed Eagle,'' ``The Time of Troubles,'' and ``Chudo: the Russian Economic Miracle.'' Various subsets of these scenarios are also treated.

The authors successfully accomplish the first task with distinction. They range provocatively and knowledgeably over a host of topics extending from the Russian oil and gas industry (a subject of special interest to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the organization with which they are both associated), to the cultural dislocations brought about by headlong Westernization, to current-day processes of decentralization and regionalization within the Russian Republic, to the strained relations of Russia with the other former union republics, to Russia's relations with such leading powers as China, Japan, Germany, and the United States. The book can be read with profit for these sections alone.

But Yergin and Gustafson are too conservative and too unimaginative in contemplating Russia's various futures. This despite the fact that they cite Disraeli's dictum: ``What we anticipate seldom occurs.''

They are surprisingly upbeat on the subject of Russia's future. ``We find reasons,'' they write, ``to be optimistic, if cautiously so, about the future of Russia.'' Several times they underline a conviction that a Russian economic miracle - like the earlier ``miracles'' in Germany and Japan - is at least possible. The book's concluding paragraph affirms: ``[A] democratic Russia is possible; a nonimperial Russia is possible. A capitalist Russia seems almost certain.'' But how likely are such optimistic developments?

The authors don't hazard any percentages in this regard. (It should also be noted that, as the authors point out, any economy that is not a Brezhnev-style command economy can be considered a capitalist one, so the prediction that Russia will be a capitalist country by the year 2010 doesn't tell us much.)

Yergin and Gustafson's wide-ranging discussion of present-day Russia and its myriad problems would seem to militate against even a timidly optimistic prognosis for the future. They write, to cite several examples, that Russia is ``in the midst of a great depression''; that ``the country is suffering a wrenching post-imperial identity crisis''; that there are presently no legal and institutional bases for a market economy; that neocommunists and neofascists are ``almost certainly'' shortly to become prime movers in Russian politics, and that there will be ``no strong agricultural revival in Russia by 2010.'' Where then, one must ask, are the grounds for even tepid optimism?

I found it instructive that a book that went to press so recently and that seeks to forecast events 16 years into the future was incapable of anticipating developments that took place during the last three months of 1993. Thus, for example, the authors place the hypothetical adoption of a new Yeltsin Russian Constitution in mid-to-late 1995. The Constitution was adopted at the time of the Russian elections in December 1993. Russia's futures are arriving with blinding speed, and only the most intrepid of forecasters would presume to predict, even in the most general way, developments a year ahead, let alone a decade into the next century.

Perhaps blinkered by their fervently held ``cautious optimism,'' the authors cite Russia's ethnic composition - more than 80 percent of the population is ethnic Russian - as grounds for certain upbeat prognoses concerning the future.

But surely Yergin and Gustafson are aware that virtually all present-day Russian elites - with the exception of the divided and apparently fading ``democrats'' - seek to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Russians would make up only half the population of a revived USSR.

The authors frequently employ the word ``revolution'' to describe the convulsive processes of change first unleashed by Gorbachev. But they don't reflect upon the meaning of that word.

In his path-breaking study, ``Revolutionary Change'' (Stanford University Press), political theorist Chalmers Johnson observes that true revolutions occur when an insurrectionary ideology that intends to recast the social division of labor according to an unprecidented pattern succeeds in taking power.

In August 1991, the pro-democracy, pro-market ``democrats'' unexpectedly triumphed over those embracing the weakening, formerly insurrectionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Since Russian society did not stabilize but remained in a ``disequilibriated'' state (to use Johnson's term), another ideology - proto-fascism - was able to emerge and it, in turn, began to challenge the just-enthroned democratic ideology and its adherents. The future therefore remained cloudy and uncertain.

The emergence of a ``Weimar Russia,'' as it is now often called both in Russia and in the West, should give rise to less sanguine prognostications than those of Yergin and Gustafson. The authors hold that the emergence of a Westernized and pro-market younger generation offers hope for the future. But in the December 1993 elections it was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a neofascist ``empire-expander,'' who was notably popular with well-educated men under age 25 living in large cities.

While the authors' scenarios do allow for periods of sharp decline and for various authoritarian spasms, they do not adequately convey the extra- ordinarily rapid, convulsive, and dangerous character of Russia's present and of its onrushing futures.

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