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Johnson's Russia List
25 July 1999
[Note from David Johnson:
1. AP: Mitchell Landsberg, Russians Ponder Their Next Move
2. Reuters: Martin Nesirky, Primakov says centrists must unite to save
3. Reuters: Russian calls U.S. ties stable despite Yugoslavia.
4. Washington Post: Robert Kaiser, In Russia, Limited Visibility.
Freer, But No More Secure in Leadership, Statistics or Tomorrow.
5. Argumenty i Fakty: Interview with US Ambassador James Collins, a
"A Wealthy America Needs a Wealthy Russia."]
Russians Ponder Their Next Move
July 24, 1999
By MITCHELL LANDSBERG
MOSCOW (AP) - A strange thing happened when Russia's economy collapsed last
summer. While Western economists spun out the most dire scenarios of
hyperinflation, social unrest and even civil war, Russians went on with their
daily business and, for the most part, coped.
To be sure, they cursed the government ineptitude and corruption that, once
again, had plundered their pockets and cleaned out their bank accounts. But
they didn't riot; they didn't stop working; and they didn't starve.
Nearly a year later, Russia stands at a new crossroads, its political future
even more the focus of concern.
Although the economy remains critically ill and on life support with
International Monetary Fund aid, it has weathered the crisis better than
almost anyone could have predicted. The ruble has remained relatively stable.
Some industries are even showing signs of revival.
That's not to say things are rosy. Russia remains deeply rutted in economic
depression. Social problems continue to worsen. Declines in health care and
education threaten the nation's future; growing crime and despair imperil the
But when people speak of crisis in Russia these days, they are more likely to
be talking about politics than socio-economics. For Russia's democracy is, at
best, a work in progress, tattered by intrigue, scandal and corruption.
President Boris Yeltsin, who has fired three prime ministers in little more
than a year, recently survived a Communist-led attempt at impeachment and
emerged politically strengthened and invigorated. Yet, Yeltsin remains an
ailing and extremely unpopular figure who increasingly draws comparison to
the doddering leaders who led the Soviet Union to ruin.
With presidential elections scheduled next summer, some question whether he
will ever yield power willingly. Recently there has been speculation Yeltsin
is pushing a merger with tiny Belarus on the pretext that the creation of a
new, expanded state would free him from his current two-term limit as
For the better part of a decade, Yeltsin has been the strongest force pushing
Russia toward the West, much as Peter the Great did three centuries before.
For a time this spring, NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia awakened a fierce,
anti-Western nationalism that appeared likely to do what inflation,
stagnation and scandal could not: Shove Russia off the road it set out on
roughly a decade ago, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev effectively
declared the Cold War over and prepared Russia to rejoin the world it had
turned its back on 70 years before.
``NATO has opened a new epoch for us like Hitler,'' the author Alexander
Solzhenitsyn said at one point.
Yeltsin is clearly having none of that, as his performance at the June
meeting of world leaders in Cologne, Germany, showed. ``I am among my friends
now,'' he declared, speaking of such figures as President Clinton and British
Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Of course, Russia has a habit of confounding those who try to predict what it
will do next. Certainly, few people a decade ago could have imagined the
course Russia has taken in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union
No one could have been that pessimistic.
Those were giddy days when Russians threw off seven decades of totalitarian
rule under the Communist Party. The opportunities seemed endless, the new
world exciting and, surely, rewarding.
Here are some of the results:
Nearly four of every 10 Russians live below the official subsistence level,
defined as an income below 829 rubles a month, the equivalent of about $34.
In December 1991, only 11 percent were in that category.
Inflation-adjusted personal income per capita is estimated at about
one-fourth the level of 1991 and just over half that of four years ago.
Russia's overall economic output this year is expected to be lower than that
of Belgium, a country with 1-14th the population and 1-500th the land.
Russia's population dropped by 401,000 people last year, continuing a decline
that began seven years ago. During that time, the country has lost roughly 2
million people, largely because alcoholism and stress have contributed to a
rising death rate and people are having fewer children.
Russia's homicide rate has become one of the world's highest, triple that of
the United States and seven times as high as Germany's.
The suicide rate is also more than triple that of the United States. Nearly
one-quarter of all military deaths are by suicide.
Life expectancy is now estimated at 60.8 years for men, up considerably from
a low of 57.6 years in 1994, but still shockingly low for an industrial
The average pension is 403 rubles - $17 - a month.
The average monthly wage is 1,225 rubles - $51 - but millions go months or
even years without getting paid at all.
Between $50 billion and $250 billion is believed to have been illegally
transferred to the West the past five years. That is at least twice as much
as Russia's national budget of $25 billion for 1999.
The list could go on and on. Tuberculosis rages in prisons. Organized crime
has a stranglehold on entire regions of the country.
Decaying nuclear submarines pose a horrific environmental threat; the risk of
rogue scientists selling nuclear weapons or biological warfare technology
terrifies many in the West.
The Russian government just got to work on the Year 2000 computer bug this
year, and predicts the nation's computers will have about a one in five
chance of failing when the year changes.
No wonder Russians are disappointed by their journey on the golden road to
``They wanted the free market. They wanted liberalization. They wanted to
live like in America,'' said Boris Kagarlitsky, a leftist political analyst
with the Russian Academy of Sciences. ``I always say people were punished for
their own stupidity.''
``It's like getting on a plane and being told you're embarking for America
and when you take off you discover that you're actually going to Burkina Faso
or some such place,'' he added. ``And at that point, you can't get off.''
Still, as disgusted as most Russians are by their country's decline, they
retain a fierce love for it and an astonishing ability to shoulder its
burdens and get on with their lives.
In the ruggedly beautiful southern Siberian region of Buryatia, there is a
group of homeless people who survive in some of the most awful conditions
anywhere. They have carved a camp into the earth in a forest near a garbage
dump, with crude wood-and-sheet metal shacks covering shallow caves dug in
the ground. In these dank, smelly holes, they take shelter in winters that
see temperatures sometimes plummet to minus 60 degrees.
But there is Alexander Sokolov, a 43-year-old jobless electrical engineer who
lives in one of the dugouts with his wife, Lara. Far from defeated by the
twists that led him there, he is practically upbeat as he discusses the
homeless camp's potential.
``We have handy people. Our women can knit and sew, and we can make
metalwork,'' he says enthusiastically. ``We need very little credit to start.
We have a good team here.''
That attitude may be Russia's saving grace. Russians, whose historical memory
encompasses the loss of more than 25 million people in World War II, know a
thing or two about hardship, and they aren't easily panicked.
``If you compare this to Indonesia, the Russian currency fell as much in a
few weeks as the Indonesian currency fell in six months, and you had
Indonesians rioting in the streets,'' noted Peter Westin, an economist at the
Russian European Center for Economic Policy.
Far from rioting, Russians scarcely protested when the ruble lost two-thirds
of its value practically overnight.
Of course, Westin said, the situation is more complicated than it might
appear. For one thing, Russians retain some of the benefits of socialism.
Most people live in heavily subsidized housing, or apartments they own.
Utilities are cheap, health care and education are theoretically free, and
many city dwellers own rural garden plots where they grow most of their
That said, ``you shouldn't have the illusion that people think it's OK,
because they don't,'' he said. But he added that Russians are ``very
persistent'' and show remarkable adaptation skills.
When Sergei Stepashin won parliamentary approval in May as Yeltsin's new
prime minister, he seemed to express common yearnings for an ordered society,
an end to uncertainties.
``We're all united by pain for our motherland and our people and the wish to
see our country finally become normal, civilized, rich, prosperous and
decent,'' Stepashin said in his acceptance speech.
And there are some glimmers of hope.
In early July, Russia's monthly inflation was down to 1 percent and foreign
currency reserves and tax collections were rising, the government said.
Pensions and state workers' current wages were finally being paid on time,
officials said, but many are still owed back payments - and the wages are too
paltry to end deep poverty.
The economic collapse may actually be stimulating the economy. Domestic
production has begun to climb as consumers - who can no longer afford many
imported goods - turn back to Russian-made products.
In the old city of Kazan, the local tobacco company is winning back customers
for its foul-smelling but cheap cigarettes, and the Kazan Macaroni Plant -
which had been losing a battle to Turkish and Iranian imports - has found a
new lease on life. Similar stories are being played out in cities and towns
throughout the country.
The real wild card now is politics. Yeltsin has clung to power despite
serious health problems, a hostile parliament and a public that
overwhelmingly dislikes him. In a recent poll, just 6 percent of the public
approved of his performance in office - and that was up from earlier polls.
With parliamentary elections scheduled later this year and presidential
elections to be held sometime next year, the political forces in the country
are jockeying for power. It's an ugly process, filled with scandal, backroom
deals and endless intrigue.
With the public disgusted by the path of economic reform and increasingly
angry at the West, the situation seems ripe for an authoritarian, nationalist
candidate who can promise to restore order and pride to the country.
Some people warn darkly that Russia is headed toward the creation of a new
Iron Curtain, a new dictatorship. Others believe that Russians, however angry
about the country's economic mess, would never give up the democratic
freedoms they now cherish.
Kagarlitsky, the political analyst, sees the likelihood of a middle path - a
semi-authoritarian, semi-leftist government. It would be, he says, ``a very
imperfect democracy. But I think that's better than a good dictatorship.''
Primakov says centrists must unite to save Russia
By Martin Nesirky
MOSCOW, July 24 (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said on
Saturday Russia's centrist forces should unite and that a strong experienced
president was needed to revive the country, but stopped short of saying he
was the one for the job.
In an interview on Moscow's TV-Tsentr, Primakov said he was thinking of
standing for the State Duma lower house of parliament. He also condemned an
``information war'' between media barons that has already broken out even
though the parliamentary vote is not due until December.
TV-Tsentr is a television station run by influential Moscow Mayor Yuri
Luzhkov. The mayor, himself a potential presidential contender, said last
week he considered Primakov suitable for the Kremlin job.
President Boris Yeltsin sacked Primakov on May 12 after eight months in
office. The 69-year-old former spy chief and foreign minister subsequently
had a successful back operation in Switzerland and is now back in Moscow.
Asked whether he planned to use his continued strong showing in popularity
ratings, Primakov said: ``If I am in the political struggle, naturally like
any other I will not use it, I will draw support from it.''
``I plan to work together with several politicians,'' he said.
Primakov did not say which politicians he had in mind, but he listed
Luzhkov's Fatherland grouping as one of the centrist forces he believed
should unite to drag Russia out of crisis.
``I favour the idea that healthy forces of the centre should unite,'' the
ex-premier said. ``I believe this is the nucleus which can help transform the
country and solve the many, many difficulties we face today.''
Former finance minister Anatoly Chubais told Ekho Moskvy radio station he
thought Primakov would end up heading a centrist bloc. Chubais and others
from the centre-right are trying to put together their own election alliance.
In his television interview, Primakov praised Luzhkov but side-stepped the
question of whether he would accept the mayor's offer to head the Fatherland
party list in December's Duma vote. He said he was ``at the stage of
thinking'' about standing.
A Luzhkov-Primakov ticket would be powerful and position either well for the
presidential election next year, when the ailing Yeltsin will step down.
``I really hope that the next president of Russia is strong, but acts only
within the framework of the law and uses all his strength and experience to
serve the people and solve the task of raising their standard of living,''
He said Russia's future as a world power and unified state depended on this.
But again he did not say who he had in mind.
Earlier, in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok, Primakov's
successor Sergei Stepashin said he did not plan to run for the presidency.
Other potential contenders include Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov and
liberal parliamentarian Grigory Yavlinsky.
Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, no longer the serious player he once
was, suffered a further setback in his efforts to win an automatic seat in
the Federation Council upper house by securing a regional governorship.
Electoral officials in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk barred him from running
for governor because more than 2,000 signatures on his application were
forged. Zhirinovsky vowed to purge the local party if the officials were
Russian calls U.S. ties stable despite Yugoslavia
WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - The relationship between Washington and
Moscow is stable despite the ``serious damage'' caused by the war in
Yugoslavia, Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said in an interview
released on Saturday on the eve of his first visit to the United States.
But Moscow's relationship with NATO is at an ``impasse,'' the Russian leader
told Newsweek magazine. ``We are very concerned with NATO expansion
eastward,'' he said.
Stepashin's comments, in the Aug. 2 edition of Newsweek, were released on the
eve of his departure on Sunday for a three-day visit to the United States,
his first since becoming prime minister.
The visit also is a first by a Russian prime minister since then Prime
Minister Yevgeny Primakov turned his plane around over the Atlantic Ocean on
March 23 after being informed that NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia were
The 78-day bombing campaign pushed U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest
level since the Cold War until Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin
broke the ice at a G-8 summit in Cologne, Germany, last month.
Stepashin, 47, told Newsweek he hoped to discuss economic matters, the
reconstruction of Yugoslavia, and the ABM and SALT II missile treaties when
he met Vice President Al Gore and other members of the Clinton
Stepashin, who had a number of telephone conversations with Gore during the
conflict over Kosovo, said he would be meeting the vice president for the
first time and hoped to build on the relationship they had developed by
The magazine asked Stepashin whether the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO had
caused serious damage to U.S.-Russian diplomatic ties.
``No doubt serious damage has been done,'' he said. ``However, I believe that
our relationship is stable and can't be shattered even by the war in
``We should draw lessons from Yugoslavia,'' he added. ``If we are partners,
and we are serious partners, we should respect each other's positions and
strive for compromise before military action begins.''
Stepashin hoped to receive $4.5 billion in loans from the International
Monetary Fund during the visit and expected a sympathetic hearing on debt
talks from the White House, which was anxious to get bilateral relations back
He expressed optimism about the direction of the Russian economy.
``I am fully convinced that between now and the end of next year, Russia will
not see any major economic and financial shocks because of the work of my
government,'' he said. ``Our primary task for the long term is to develop a
free and attractive investment climate.''
Stepashin expressed ``deep condolences'' to the Kennedy family over the death
of John F. Kennedy Jr., killed when the plane he was piloting crashed in the
ocean off Martha's Vineyard on July 16. His wife and sister-in-law also died
in the crash.
``Russians are very nostalgic about the Kennedys,'' Stepashin said. ``And we
are very sorry that such a good young man died so senselessly.''
25 July 1999
[for personal use only]
In Russia, Limited Visibility
Freer, But No More Secure in Leadership, Statistics or Tomorrow
By Robert G. Kaiser
Robert Kaiser, The Post's Moscow correspondent from 1971 to 1974, recently
returned from a month-long reporting trip to Russia.
MOSCOW—Nearly eight years since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Russia
has earned a lousy reputation. Its government is a stumblebum operation, run
by a barely functioning president trusted by 3 percent (that is not a typo)
of his countrymen, according to the polls. Its economy is a disaster.
Russia's criminals have proven more resourceful and effective than its
politicians, many of whom have turned out to be criminals. The price of a
vote in the Duma, the national parliament, is reliably described as $30,000
on a big issue such as the impeachment of President Boris Yeltsin, who
apparently was saved from this fate in May by quite a few $30,000 payments.
It's easy to paint a bloodcurdling picture of Russia in 1999, a nation
plagued by gangs and drugs, poisoned by ecological degradation and reeling
from a chronic health crisis. This Russia lacks strong civic institutions, a
reliable physical infrastructure and the basic tools that would make possible
a real market economy, starting with banks and enforceable contracts.
All of this is true--and yet it isn't the whole truth. Things are awful, and
yet not so bad. Life is uncertain here, and yet often fun. It's easy to list
the society's ills, but there are also palpable signs of better health:
Russian culture is enjoying a renaissance, a new generation of entrepreneurs
is making tangible headway in altering the economy, young people are rushing
to master the skills that can make them effective participants in a free
Russian marketplace of ideas as well as goods. Russians are getting used to
freedom, and they like it.
Despite all the disruptions caused by a sloppy transition from communism to
something else, this is still Russia, the largest country on Earth, home to
millions of talented people and enormous natural wealth, nurturer of great
art, great history, great humanity. It can't be written off after a difficult
decade or two, or even after a lost century, which is how the 20th may look
to Russian historians a hundred years from now.
A month's visit here after several years' absence is a startling experience
because so much is changing so fast. Arbitrarily separated from the rest of
the world for most of their history, Russians have managed, in a few years,
to wipe away many of the distinctive attributes that so recently
distinguished them from us. They dress with some personal flair, freely
express their opinions, dance all night in lively nightclubs--well, some of
the younger ones do--and read serious, unstilted journalism. Life on the
streets of big cities looks calm and quite prosperous by Russian standards.
The simplest truth about Russia is that it cannot be summarized with any
simple truism. There are now thousands of Russian realities, from the glitzy
sheen of wealthy "new Russians" in Moscow's countless casinos to the
primitive poverty of remote villages; from the corruption of everyday life (a
non-driver can buy a driver's license for $500, a terrifying thought in a
city where horrific traffic accidents are common) to the many orthodox
churches being restored and filled with music and prayer across the country.
The steady erosion of central authority has created much more room for
different local realities in Russia's regions.
Another simple but perplexing truth about this Russia: Much of its reality is
hidden from view. Intellectuals talk and write about Russia's "shadow
society." The shadows start at the top: Yeltsin acts behind a thick curtain
of mystery and intrigue. Many Russians are convinced that their president is
really out of it now--so ill and disoriented that he rarely, if ever, plays a
meaningful part in the nation's affairs.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political consultant whose office displays two
certificates of appreciation from Yeltsin for helping him in his 1996
reelection campaign, said in a recent conversation: "I don't think Yeltsin is
capable of making any kind of decision." Nikonov agrees with the widespread
view that the country is being run by a circle of people around Yeltsin
including his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko; the chief of his presidential
administration, Alexander Voloshin; two of the dubious financial oligarchs so
influential here, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich; and Valentin
Yumashev, the ghostwriter of Yeltsin's memoirs and his former chief of staff.
Many Russians who follow politics closely are bemused by the efforts of
Western leaders, particularly President Clinton and his staff, to pretend
that Yeltsin is still capable of participating in sophisticated decision
making. Their skepticism seems justified. Yeltsin's public performances are
stiff, clumsy and apparently disconnected from reality. He looks bloated and
unsteady on his feet. He has gone off on weird tangents in meetings and
public appearances. His troops showed up uninvited in Kosovo, and it isn't
clear what role, if any, he played in sending them there.
It is difficult to imagine a free society in which politics and politicians
are utterly discredited, but today's Russia is precisely that. Indeed, there
is no tangible connection between politicians and the public--a monument to
the failure so far to construct a functioning civil society.
The shadow society exists well beyond politics. Ask Dmitri Malko, 28, for
example, how he launched Le Club, a large and comfortable jazz venue on
Moscow's Taganka Square. He explains: "Some friends and I put some money
together and opened the club." Right. And does he pay off a "roof"--someone
who provides protection for the club? "Everyone does. You sign a contract
with a security company and they take care of everything. It's official now.
I like that." According to other businessmen, "official" is indeed the
correct word, since various police agencies now hire themselves out as roofs.
Malko did not offer up the identity of his roof.
In the modern world, statistics are a basic tool of measurement, but any
reliance on Russian statistics is dangerous. Andrei Melville, vice president
of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences, said emphatically that statistics
gathered in today's Russia are meaningless. "You can't believe anything"
described with a statistic, he said. This may explain why no projection of
famine and disaster since 1991 has ever proven accurate. It certainly helps
explain why a country that is--at least statistically--reeling from an
economic crisis looks to a visitor like it's doing pretty well, especially
when compared with how it looked under communist rule 10, 15 or 25 years ago.
Another reason for the limited utility of statistics is that they don't take
into account the Russians' ancient skill of coping with difficulty. Today's
hardships don't seem so harsh in comparison with the terrors of the 1930s,
the devastation and privation of World War II, or even the long lines and
frustrations of the 1980s.
Why has the transition from communism been so difficult for Russia? There are
scores of good answers--another reflection of the complexity of Russian
realities. The best ones are connected to enduring truths that can't be swept
away in just eight years.
Russians themselves often underestimate the degree to which the Soviet system
damaged this country. Under communism, Russians built a strange sort of
primitive industrialized society, at huge cost. The structure could not
survive market conditions.
In 74 years of communism, virtually no Russian mastered market economics. No
one was prepared to cope with post-communist opportunities the way, for
example, Leszek Balcerowicz, the mastermind of economic reform in Poland, has
ushered his country to capitalist prosperity as finance minister and now as
deputy prime minister. Russian politicians, emphatically including Mikhail
Gorbachev and Yeltsin, have been clueless about economics.
But the best economists could not have made Soviet enterprises fit for
free-market conditions. How could they? The Soviet-era managers of those
enterprises knew nothing about managing in a market economy; workers used to
goofing off and shirking responsibility weren't prepared to adapt to the
market, either. Soviet technology and infrastructure were utterly inadequate.
The failure of the Soviet system was largely responsible for Gorbachev's
ascent to power in 1985, but he did not fix it. He abandoned it.
It took communists nearly three-quarters of a century to ruin this country;
it will take their successors a long time to overcome their accomplishments.
"We were completely unprepared . . . for this change from 'fundamentalist
socialism' to a real, contemporary, civilized existence," observed Yevgeni
Velikhov, a distinguished nuclear physicist. Russia's adaptation to modern,
civilized conditions was rudely interrupted in 1917, he argued--the year the
communists took power and ended a brief period in which Russia had begun to
industrialize and modernize.
Proud Russians have found it difficult to acknowledge that they are far, far
behind the industrialized West. But some are coming to realize this. "My
grandson will live to see a healthy Russia," said Alexander Bovin, 70, a
columnist for Izvestia who was Russia's ambassador to Israel through most of
One source of Russia's difficulties can be found in the distinction between
"freedom" and "democracy." This Russia is remarkably free, but it is not a
functioning democracy. The freedom is invigorating, much appreciated by
millions of Russians, and a vast improvement over the regimentation of the
Soviet Union. But elemental freedom from arbitrary power does not lead to
honest and effective government.
What the Russians have now is a kind of democratic monarchism. The elected
monarch is harassed by a mostly powerless parliament. The constitution
Yeltsin persuaded his countrymen to adopt in 1993 gave him vast, unchecked
powers. It gave the parliament such a small role to play that there was no
hope of developing strong political parties ready to share responsibility for
governing. The judiciary is ineffectual, so the rule of law does not yet
The architects of this structure call themselves democrats, so a great many
Russians have decided they don't want democracy. Both democracy and free
markets have gotten a bad name among ordinary Russians--though neither has
really been tried here.
Even so, Russians have decided that they appreciate the right to vote.
Election turnouts here are larger than in the United States. In political
circles, it is generally assumed that a new Duma will be chosen in elections
scheduled late this year, and that a new president will be voted into office
next year. The Russian people expect these elections to occur, and expect the
results to be respected. This constitutes progress: In 1996, many Russian
politicians feared that Yeltsin would try somehow to annul the scheduled
Many political figures here favor substantial revisions to the constitution
that would limit presidential power and enhance the Duma's authority. That
would be an important start, but implanting a democratic system with checks
and balances, civic institutions, accountability for senior officials and a
meaningful rule of law will require much more. This is a society familiar
only with the Big Man form of government, which has prevailed here literally
for centuries. Choosing that man in a free election is revolutionary, but it
doesn't constitute democracy.
Learning to share power and tolerate opponents won't come easily to Russians.
Nor will honesty and truthfulness, two values that have never had much
resonance here. Russians cherish human warmth, generosity, hospitality. But
rigorous honesty, especially outside one's circle of friends and family, has
been less important.
"There is no pressure on a Russian to be honest," said Tatyana Tolstaya, a
novelist who recently moved back to Russia after years in the United States.
"Most of our people don't want to be honest." She traces this condition back
to the long epoch of serfdom in Russia, when the law of the land formally
denied the humanity and individuality of most Russians. Serfs learned to
assert their sense of self by stealing, she said.
This Russia is a struggling country of 147 million souls (deaths outnumber
births, so the number is steadily declining). The Russian federal budget for
1999 is the equivalent of about $25 billion, slightly more than the U.S.
government will spend this year on food stamps. Numbers like this at least
begin to describe the extent of Russia's fall from superpower status. On the
other hand, the budget is just another unreliable statistic. Costs in Russia
are so low (many people work for $20 to $40 a month) that the money goes
further than in more normal economies. Nevertheless, Russia is desperately
Russians have survived eight years of changes without significant help from
their leaders, who have shied away from any direct discussion of Russia's
fate. Neither Yeltsin nor any other national leader has helped Russians
articulate their plight and consider the best ways to deal with it. The
communists--who constitute the biggest political bloc, with the support of
perhaps 20 percent of the population--have abandoned Soviet communism and now
have no ideology. No great book on Russia's fate has been published, though
some writers have struggled with the theme. A few intellectuals have reopened
the ancient discussion about "What is Russia?" but without much of an
audience. On the biggest question facing the country, Russians are mostly
This silence is symbolized by the Duma's struggle to agree on a new national
anthem. It has chosen an old tune, but hasn't settled on any words to be sung
As the Russians continue their great experiment, many will be tempted to
predict the future. Those who feel this urge might take a cue from the
typical Russian weather forecast. In the morning, radio weathermen here
foresee conditions for today, no further. At night, the television weather
report foresees tomorrow, but not beyond.
US Ambassador Views Russia Relations
Argumenty i Fakty, No. 29
1 July 1999
[translation for personal use only]
Exclusive interview with James Collins, ambassador extraordinary and
plenipotentiary of the United States in the Russian Federation, by
Yelizaveta Shtayger; place and date not given: "Wealthy America Needs a
[Shtayger] You recently celebrated your 60th
birthday in Moscow. Telegrams from President Clinton and Secretary of
State Albright noted that you are helping them to understand Russia and
to build relations with our country. How are you managing in the
kaleidoscope of Russian events to track that which is important?
[Collins] I believe that the choice is determined by our overriding
at each specific moment. If we look at what took up my time in the past
year, these were matters of our security and, specifically, problems
having to do with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and
missile technology and arms reduction. The new system of European
security also. And, of course, the crisis in Kosovo and the search for
ways out of this serious test for our relationship.
Certainly, I was also preoccupied with the situation in the economy
the August crisis. I had to constantly transmit to Washington an analysis
of what was happening. We worked hard to promote a successful dialogue
between Russia and the IMF in order to adjust your relations with your
creditors. All this is exceptionally important for Russia's continued
development and for our relations.
[Shtayger] What's your assessment of these relations today?
[Collins] I believe that the relations of Russia and the United States are
basically good because they are based on a wide spectrum of interests.
The reality is that today we share one and the same principles: human
rights and democracy. There is a common understanding of the fact that
each individual is entitled to respect for his dignity and the
development of his capabilities. This constitutes the foundation of our
relations and makes them of a high quality.
It is for this reason that we can on the threshold of the next century
together set about the constructive accomplishment of key objectives in a
spirit of cooperation and find ways of overcoming disagreements. Our
societies have been drawn into a "flow" that is unprecedented for this
century. Approximately 25,000 Russians have visited the United States on
official exchange programs of the US Government alone in the past six
years, and thousands of Americans have come here. These figures are
[Shtayger] In a report entitled "The World Without Russia?" delivered in
Washington recently the American political scientist Thomas Graham
reached a number of conclusions as to why Russia's long-term weakness
would be disadvantageous to the United States. These included the
following: a strong Russia could moderate the ambitions of China and a
number of nondemocratic regimes in Asia. Do you agree? And what, in your
opinion, is the geopolitical future of China, where today more than 1
billion persons live and where in the not-too-distant future the
population will have increased by a further 300 million?
[Collins] Speaking of geopolitical stability as a whole, I would like first
of all to quote what my president has had to say. He emphasizes constantly
that it is in the United States's interests for Russia to be a strong,
prosperous democratic country. A weak unpredictable Russia is a potential
source of instability in Europe and Asia. And we have an interest here,
it seems to me, both from the viewpoint of global stability and from the
viewpoint of our relations with Russia.
As far as Asia is concerned, the appearance of such a power as China
will, possibly, be a determining factor for the future of this region. I
believe, and the US Government thinks likewise, that it is important for
us to ensure durable, constructive, and predictable relations with China.
But there is one essential point that I would like to make: both in the
present and, particularly, in the past there have been attempts by
certain political scientists in this country to reduce the relations of
Russia, China, and the United States to a "zero-sum scenario," that is,
if the United States establishes good relations with one of these
countries, problems will inevitably arise with the other.
We reject this approach, we believe, on the contrary, that it is very
important for Russia and China to have good stable relations with each
other. And to contribute for the sake of this to the stability,
development, and future prosperity of the Asian region....
A 'Unipolar' World and Global Security
[Shtayger] And how justified, in your opinion, is the existence of a
world, where one country--the United States--is predominant and could be
the "arbiter of the fate" of other peoples? The above-mentioned report of
Thomas Graham surmises that a "tripolar" world of the United States,
Europe, and Russia would be potentially more stable.
[Collins] I am not a great believer in "poles," I am not a supporter. It
would seem to me that the need to develop a system of institutions and
relations capable of effectively resolving conflicts and disagreements
will arise in the future.
Take the Asian economic crisis. The fact that it was echoed almost
instantly in Russia and then spread to Brazil is an eloquent indication
that global economic connections are a reality. It is not as important,
to create "poles," therefore, as to have good connections and to manage
My understanding of world security is quite simple: do people feel
protected in their everyday life, in society, or are they under threat
and unsure of the future. For the past 50 years the protection has
consisted of a buildup of arms and the development of technology. These
processes were directed by the Soviet system here and the alliance led by
the United States in the West. Directing this is now far more complex
since missile technology has proliferated around the world. We are faced
with a new reality, which cannot be ignored. The nuclear tests in Asia
are an example.
[Shtayger] The US Congress recently sent for the president's signature an
on the deployment of a national missile defense system. Will it not wreck
the ABM Treaty signed by the USSR and the United States back in 1972, on
which strategic stability and the entire disarmament process has been
built for many years?
[Collins] The brief answer is no. But it is equally the case that Russia
the United States will in the coming decades be faced with the need to
revise many mutual agreements in order to adapt them to the new
As far as the United States is concerned, we know that some countries
that are hostile toward us are building up their potential for a possible
attack on the territory of the United States with ballistic missiles. It
is a question of what we should do. Congress and the administration have
agreed that the most correct action is to find a way of deploying a
limited missile defense system, which would be a response to this threat.
In its present form the 1972 treaty provides for the possibility of the
deployment of such a system. But this is only part of the treaty. There
is a whole number of issues that need to be settled.
It is necessary to revise the ABM Treaty, but primarily to find ways of
preserving it. Since our government and the president agree with your
government and president that this treaty is the basis of the strategic
relationship between our countries and, even more, has global stature.
At the same time, on the other hand, we do not think that the treaty
will remain useful to both parties unless it affords both of them an
opportunity to defend themselves in the event of a new threat emerging.
We have said clearly that we want to cooperate with the Russian
Government and to rewrite the treaty in such a way as to preserve its
strategic significance. After all, when it was being concluded and at the
time of its subsequent completion there were no ballistic missiles in
third countries. Things are different now.
Reciprocal Trade Difficulties
[Shtayger] Let's talk about the economy. President Clinton and US officials
have said repeatedly that America needs a stable and wealthy Russia. At
the same time, on the other hand, the transnational companies are denying
our goods an opportunity to penetrate the American market. We know, for
example, what is happening with Russian steel. Russia's trade turnover
with the United States is paltry if compared with Russia's trade turnover
with Italy or Germany. Do you not see a serious contradiction between
word and deed here?
[Collins] I would like in answering this question to note first of all that
Russia's trade with the United States affords your country advantages. So
the talk to the effect that the Americans are deriving some exceptional
benefit from it is mistaken.
Further, our reciprocal trade today is not at all what it could be. At the
same time, when it is a matter of entirely particular commodities--and
their quantity is, believe me, extremely negligible--the press makes an
incredible noise, as was the case with Russian steel. Steel retired from
the markets of Asia and other regions owing to the economic downturn.
Russia was not the only country in this respect: Japan, Brazil, and other
countries also began deliveries to the American market since it could
support them. The growing imports began to destabilize this market. And
our manufacturers, naturally, sounded the alarm and demanded a certain
level of predictability on their own market.
Such cases, although they apply to very few commodities, require
attention. We performed a lot of work on an agreement ensuring that
Russian steel take its place on the American market. The compromise
agreement that was reached will give Russian and American manufacturers
and workers a stable, predictable basis for future trade.
But there is another side to the problem also. Russia exports to the
world market products of competitive price and quality. These have thus
far been raw material and semi-manufactured goods: oil, gas, aluminum,
fertilizer components, and so forth. The task for Russia is to modernize
its industry in order to become competitive in the manufacture of the end
product. This is a question of investments and the reconstruction of
production capacity. It remains a fact that there is none of this as yet
in many spheres of industry, this is why Russian products cannot compete
successfully with Western products.
We are trying to stimulate changes that will attract investors and
modernize production so that Russia might become a full-fledged player on
the world market. This is in many cases an economically, politically, and
socially painful process. It means complex and difficult decisions. But
these are the decisions that have to be made as soon as possible.
[Shtayger] Does this mean that the United States really needs not a poor
a rich and flourishing Russia?
[Collins] The idea that we need a weak and poor Russia is utterly without
foundation. If Russia is poor, it will not be an attractive market for
us, will not be attractive for investors. If it is weak and unstable, the
entire region will be unstable. Our interests presuppose the existence of
a strong, prosperous, and predictable partner with which we can
cooperate. This does not mean that we will have no disagreements. There
will always be disagreements. But it is much easier to work with a
partner who is self-assured and capable of making decisions on the basis
'Harvard Boys' and Transatlantic Influence
[Shtayger] People are of the opinion here that many decisions in the sphere
of the economy and policy of Russia are dictated by the West. And that such
politicians as Yavlinskiy and Chubays are "conduits" of a pro-American
policy. Now the position of treasury secretary will be held by Lawrence
Summers, who built the United States's economic relations with Russia
with an orientation toward the Gaydar-team of young reformers, who are
called here "Harvard boys". What can you say about this?
[Collins] I myself attended Harvard so "Harvard boy" sounds to me like a
compliment. Seriously, though, I have heard a great deal of talk about
the fact that some people from across the Atlantic are able to dictate
something or other here. This is simply absurd. I am well acquainted with
many of the so-called "pro-American" politicians personally, as with
leaders of the opposition also. They want only good things for their
country, in my opinion. But it is Russians who must decide who will
pursue the best policy. And it seems to me that you have a great deal of
experience: you have lived a large part of this century under one system
and have tried out the alternative over the past several years. And I
believe that you yourselves are entitled to judge, which is more
You have many people who are criticizing what is happening here. The
criticism is largely justified: some of the ideas proposed by Americans
or Europeans or some others have not been justified here. But I believe
that the main reality remains the fact that Russians made their choice in
1991-1992. They confirmed it when they adopted the new constitution. The
vast majority of them have taken part in democratic elections and will do
so once again in December 1999 and in June of the year 2000. I believe
that all Americans are interested in Russians continuing to make
decisions in their own interests and electing the leaders who will
reflect these interests the most fully.
Everyone understands how difficult it is to transform a totalitarian--in
not-too-distant past--state with a command system of government into a
state that will effectively and openly compete in the world arena and
become a full member of the democratic community. It is this that compels
us to support a continuation of the economic reforms in Russia, whose
implementation should bring your people to prosperity.
[Shtayger] In what specifically, in your opinion, might Russo-American
cooperation in the coming decade be expressed? What are the most
[Collins] From the security viewpoint we will have to take a new look at
traditional military technology since the world has become more complex.
And the idea that the United States could do this on its own is simply
misplaced. There are also such problems as organized crime and the spread
of narcotics. This is a comparatively recent phenomenon here, my country
has quite extensive and bitter experience in this connection. We face
problems of the environment, which are becoming increasingly significant
for the future. The problem of water resources: how to obtain clean
water. We must prevent the spread of disease against which conventional
drugs are powerless.
It is very important for us to have partners who can work effectively
on this. But poor economies and poor governments cannot be good partners.
Strong democratic governments, which display concern for their citizens,
are needed for tackling such complex tasks.
The Enigmatic Russian Soul
[Shtayger] You did a practical-training stint at Moscow State University,
in the very thick of Russians, and know them well. Can you explain what
is meant by the "enigmatic Russian soul"?
[Collins] I came here for the first time in 1965. I have been here three
since then. But the longer that I have been in your country, the less I
am convinced that I understand it.
But I have in my heart great respect for the talent, creative potential,
and steadfastness of your people. The most important thing that I observe
here is Russians' growing demand for the same rights and respect for
human dignity as their contemporaries in Europe and other democratic
countries. Russians already enjoy such rights: they travel freely and can
hear and read what they want. And, as I see for myself in traveling
around your country, these values are important to people. The younger
generation of Russians, it seems to me, is endeavoring to develop its
capabilities and perform its own role in society. I observe how your
people are everywhere finding opportunities to cope with the difficult
economic situation and to make their life acceptable. The spirit that
ensures survival is very strong here. I do not tire of explaining to my
colleagues in Washington, therefore, that Russia is working out its own
path in order to respond to the challenges of the times and it knows how
to do this very cleverly. And although, like any country, Russia is not
protected against the impact of processes in the world economy, it will
not always act exactly according to the standard that has come here from
outside. And the talents and abilities of your country cannot be denied.
[Shtayger] The musical evenings at Spaso House, where we are talking--are
a tribute to tradition or your personal predilection since you yourself
used to play the violin well?
[Collins] Oh, this was long ago.... I find that a good musical evening
people together and affords a reason to come here. Russo-American
contacts should not be confined merely to politics and economics.
Cultural and civic ties are no less important. As far as I can,
therefore, I use this building to support these aspects of our relations