Russia's Dilemma

The worsening of Russia's relations with the West is an unfortunate, but not surprising, side effect of NATO's campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov called off his planned visit to Washington. Intemperate official pronouncements out of Moscow have displayed a mixture of resignation, frustration, and outrage over the NATO action, which in turn have drawn criticism from pro-Western democrats. Russia expelled NATO's representatives from Moscow and put START II ratification on hold again.

The Russians keenly resent their inability to act in a part of the world where they have long been a player. Russia's 18th- and 19th-century military successes against Ottoman Turkey helped set the stage for the eventual independence of the Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, and Bulgarians - all of whom share Russia's Eastern Orthodox faith - from centuries of harsh Turkish rule.

This shared religion and the "pan-Slavic" movement were powerful political forces in 19th-century Russia; Moscow romantically saw itself as the protector of its Orthodox and Slavic "little brothers" in Serbia. For Russian nationalists, many of whom seem to be living in 1899 instead of 1999, such ideas are still powerful.

But the actions of many of these same nationalists - and the Communists, who dominate Russia's parliament - have put Moscow in a no-win bind. Their unwillingness to pursue economic reform has hamstrung Boris Yeltsin's ministers and led the country to near-bankruptcy.

The government is so broke that it simply can't afford to intervene on Serbia's behalf. Russian troops can barely feed themselves; tanks and aircraft are short of spare parts.

Thus Russia's dilemma: While it rails against NATO, it desperately needs Western cash to jump-start its economy. After talks in Moscow, the International Monetary Fund has agreed to a new loan to help reschedule Russia's huge foreign debt, which almost equals its annual economic output.

These loans are risky. Without reform, the IMF money could easily vanish down the same hole as previous aid. Most needed are laws that establish a judicial system to enforce contracts and permit private ownership of land - laws the Communists deeply oppose. Yet the Primakov government can't even put forward a credible annual budget.

Still, the West can't just let Russia sink into economic and political chaos. Russia still rivals the US in numbers of nuclear warheads. Good Russian-Western relations are in everyone's interest. It's time for creative thinking at the IMF and in Western capitals to come up with more-effective aid.

And Russia could still play a constructive mediating role between NATO and Milosevic. Meanwhile, the West must keep the hand of friendship and cooperation extended so that cooler heads in Moscow can grasp it.

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