THREE years after the August 1991 putsch, one could almost believe that Russia is becoming a normal country. This is not the impression that one gets from reading accounts by journalists who focus on Vladimir Zhirinovsky or the mafia. It does not come through in the wails of pain from Russians obsessed with unsafe streets. But despite the danger of using the word ``normal'' to refer to the land of Gogol and Bulgakov, some important developments are evident:
1. Russia is not yet a democracy, but it is more democratic. Political interests and groupings are being defined. People are exerting a genuine effort to make an awkward system function. Potential candidates are establishing organizations and beginning to ``test the waters'' for future elections. The political noise level has undergone a major reduction in decibel count.
This may well change when everyone returns from summer vacations and is likely to cycle at varying levels for a long time. Though political battles over fundamental principles will continue, it is unlikely that any of the players will find it in their interest to kick over the game board.
Most important, there is vastly more political discussion, information is more widely available, and there are far more points of access to the political system than in the Soviet era. If money becomes as important as political control in allocating TV time, the next presidential election, whenever it is held, will be a genuine contest. President Boris Yeltsin has failed to make the transition from political hero to political leader. Like many Russian liberals before 1917 (and like George Washington), he abhors political parties, seeing in them the basis for divisive partisanship. A product of a system that put a high premium on the appearance of unanimity, he fails to comprehend the positive aspects of political conflict. But others are aware of the need for real parties, and they will eventually assert themselves.
2. It would be almost impossible to reintroduce a dictatorship. The perpetrators of the August 1991 coup mistakenly thought all they had to do was grab the levers of power, as Leonid Brezhnev did in 1964. They did not understand that the levers were no longer connected to anything.
Mr. Yeltsin could proclaim himself emperor and his decrees would have about as much impact as they do now. In the unlikely event that someone like Mr. Zhirinovsky were elected president, his promised draconian measures would be implemented about as effectively. The society has become too complex, too open, too wealthy, and too decentralized. Everyone talks about the need for an ``iron hand,'' but when people are questioned about specific policies that a strict regime might implement (censorship, concentration camps, abolition of political parties), the only one that elicits majority support is a vague ``crackdown on crime.''
One of the most pernicious myths about Russia is that the hideous regime imposed by Jo-seph Stalin was something ``nor-mal'' in Russian political life, that it responded to the popular desire for order and an iron hand, and that the people did little or no-thing to resist. In the countryside, resistance was fierce and sometimes bloody. At Potsdam, when Winston Churchill sought to in-gratiate himself with the Soviet leader by commiserating about wartime losses, Stalin replied, ``Collectivization, that was a war.'' It took a decade to impose Stalinism, costing tens of millions of lives. No one wants a repetition.
3. A new middle class is emerging, a real middle class that receives far less attention than the mafia. But it is not a European middle class, and the ``rules of the game'' for doing business in Russia are likely to be idiosyncratic for a long time.
Few journalists understand that Russia has real financiers and that this summer's MMM pyramid scandals are a circus of transitory significance. Many more Americans know the names Ivan Boesky and Michael Milkin than could name the CEOs of five Fortune 500 corporations. Most real Russian financiers do not want publicity, especially under current conditions. The ``current conditions'' bring us to the issue of crime. Yes, it is bad. The question is whether Russia is becoming a totally criminalized state or is a state with a serious criminal problem that requires a major political effort. The latter is more likely. With luck, it may do as well - or as badly - as Italy.
The USSR was a regime that practically forced its people to violate laws to survive. The political class was thoroughly corrupt, and even the ``honest'' officials adhered to norms much closer to those prevailing in the Middle East or Latin America than the West. No one should belittle the pain of Russians who have been robbed and seen friends and relatives murdered. Everyone is afraid. And fear is likely to produce a political response.
Recent public opinion surveys indicate that crime has replaced inflation as the No. 1 Russian concern. This suggests that political demands for safer streets will be a major issue - and not only for the demagogues. Despite the rise in crime, there has been no corresponding increase in Zhirinovsky's popularity. Polish merchants in Warsaw recently staged a strike to protest the lack of police protection in their city. Throughout the former Soviet bloc, criminals will be stopped when communities take direct measures and demand better conditions from their leaders.
There is support for law and order among a growing financial, economic, business, and specialist class who are not dishonest (except when it is unavoidable) and who still retain norms and values of the intelligentsia. They're coverage in the press is rare compared with that of the mafia because they seek no publicity and make less-exciting reading. We need to know much more about them.
4. A corollary to the new middle class is a recent and critically important shift toward investment in newly privatized Russian industries. There are no accurate statistics and the entire climate of Russian business encourages camouflaging rather than disclosing the real financial condition of companies. But reports from towns as diverse as Angarsk, Novosibirsk, Yakutsk, and Novgorod indicate that businesspeople have begun to put money into their enterprises.
5. New investment is accelerating an already rapid process of regional differentiation. Few Russians can imagine a time when Moscow and St. Petersburg merchants competed to influence tariff policy, with huge stakes involved. Most are shocked at the image of local stock-exchange committees seeking to influence the location of railroad lines or the building of universities, much less building the universities themselves. This heritage is now being reclaimed. Will some of the localities opt to build stadiums rather than decent hospitals? Almost inevitably. That, too, is part of the heritage.
Local development is driving a major redistribution of regional power and wealth. Under the imperial regime, and especially under the Soviet regime, the importance of urban areas and regions was artificial. It depended on administrative fiat, political and military needs, and the whim of individuals in power. Communities were created at enormous cost that are no longer sustainable without special subsidies and supply systems, such as in the far north, the science cities, and special military facilities. We are already seeing shifts in regional status and wealth, based on the natural resources available and the quality of local leadership.
6. Overall living standards appear to have improved. This is a crucial question, and even Yeltsin's top advisers lack solid data. The ``visual'' evidence suggests that people are better off. Not only are the stores well-stocked, but people are buying. Yet everyone also talks about the growing gap between haves and have-nots, something that was not so visible in Soviet society. It will take some getting used to, but many societies have adapted to sharp income differentials.
Perhaps my optimism is a result of limited expectations. If Russia can avoid another dictatorial regime, if its economy gradually improves, and if the number of those living below the poverty line is more in the range of 20 percent than 50 percent, it will not have a bad outcome. And it will not be likely to create conditions encouraging another coup.