US-Russia Relations: Take the Long View

Let's consider how far we have come from a Stalinist economy and a Communist dictatorship - not just how far we have to go

THE trend in Russia lately has not been good: bloody crackdowns in Chechnya, the ascendance of hard-liners to key posts, and the weakening of reform forces. There are many doubts about President Boris Yeltsin's leadership, and a Communist could win the presidency.

Some even claim that Russia is headed back toward authoritarian rule and empire. Yet this view ignores what has gone right in Russia - and exaggerates what has gone wrong.

United States policy toward Russia should be determined, not by bad news, but by our three fundamental interests: economic reform, democratic reform, and military stability. In each of these areas there is good and bad news. One fact is inescapable: Russia today poses far less of a threat than it did five years ago.

Bad news - and good

From the perspective of US interests, much in Russia is troubling. The economy is riddled with crime and corruption. Most Russians believe that their country has been impoverished by reform, and that privatization has enriched a criminal class. Agricultural reform is halting.

Mr. Yeltsin is distancing himself from reformist principles and attacking the unpopular policies of his own presidency. He is embracing many of the communist and nationalist opposition's views in order to boost his campaign. The weakened reform movement has been unable to unite.

A more-assertive Russian foreign policy is evolving. The problem is not an attempt to restore the Soviet Union, but more subtle pressure to force weaker neighbors in the "near abroad" to accommodate Russia's interests.

Yet much also has gone well in the new Russia. Capitalism is firmly established. The private sector produces two-thirds of Russia's output. Inflation is down to 2.8 percent a month. Politically, democracy is taking root. Two Duma elections have come and gone without incident. The media is increasingly independent and critical of the government.

On the foreign-policy front, Russia has pulled out its military forces from Central Europe and the Baltic states and is working together with US forces in Bosnia. It has adhered to its overall treaty obligations to cut nuclear and conventional forces, even as we have many questions on important aspects of implementation.

US policy options

Given this mixed picture, how should the US view Russia? Today, the idea of a strategic partnership with Russia is unrealistic. We should lower our expectations.

Russia is emerging from a state-run economy and Communist dictatorship. Evolution of a market economy and democracy will be slow, imperfect, and reflect Russia's traditions. Russia is a great power; we should expect that its interests will sometimes conflict with our own.

We should focus less on headlines and more on how to advance our interests and move Russia in the right direction. All our contacts with the Russian government should stress that a continuation of market and democratic reform is the only way to transform Russia into a modern, prosperous nation that is fully accepted by the community of nations. A free and fair presidential campaign; strict implementation of the new IMF agreement; and the overhaul of the tax, commercial, and criminal codes - these essential pieces of reform need to move forward.

We should spell out our ideas for a political settlement of the Chechnya conflict and insist that Yeltsin commit to a negotiated solution. In foreign policy, we should establish clear markers on what we will not accept of Russia's behavior toward its neighbors, even as we acknowledge that Russia is a major country with legitimate security interests.

The US should forcefully pursue its nuclear-arms-control agenda. Russia retains more than 20,000 nuclear warheads, and we should seek to lock in pending agreements before the June election. Now that the US Senate has ratified START II, we should push the Duma to do the same.

We should encourage reform by Russia's neighbors because it will reinforce Russia's own reform and growth. The key example is Ukraine, where reform has stalled. In its contacts with Kiev, the US should underscore the importance of moving forward the painful process of privatization if Ukraine is to benefit from reform.

There is no doubt that we are in a difficult phase in relations with Russia. But Russia today has a market, has held elections, and is at peace with its neighbors, including Ukraine. No one could have predicted this five years ago.

Reform in motion

No one can predict the next year. For example, it certainly matters to us whether or not a reformist candidate wins next June's presidential elections. Yet we should remember that reform isn't necessarily lost, even if the reform candidate loses. Great waves of change have been set in motion in Russia that no president or Duma can easily reverse.

If US policy is to succeed, it must be based on a long-term perspective. Reform will be slow, and unpleasant surprises will crop up along the way. Yet we should consider how far we have come from a Stalinist economy and a Communist dictatorship - not just how far we have to go.

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