The Next Collapse Will Be Russia's Last

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Though the Constitution does not say it in so many words, the main task of the Russian president is to keep the country from falling apart. In taking the oath of office, the president swears to protect "the security and integrity of the state."

Russia has collapsed twice in the less than a 100 years, in 1917 and again in 1991, and there is no assurance that it won't happen again. True, it has come back strong each time -- first as the Soviet Union and now as the Russian Federation -- but there are only so many times you can pull off that trick. The next collapse will surely be the last.

Though flush with cash and newfound power, Russia's leadership remains traumatized by the sinking of the Soviet Union. The real shock was how quick and easy it was. That shock and the fear of losing control explain much of the country's behavior both internationally and domestically -- for example, in the recent managed State Duma and presidential elections.

Speculation on who will be calling the shots after Dmitry Medvedev is sworn in is interesting, inevitable and irrelevant -- at least as far as the nature of the challenge facing the nation is concerned.

Structurally speaking, the problem the country faces today is much like that the one that tsarist and Soviet Russia faced. By refusing to share power and to adapt to changing conditions, the rulers create a crisis that, unaddressed, ultimately proves lethal. The interests of the nation's ruling class threaten the very existence of the nation itself.

How does the new Russia avoid the same fate? In a word -- diversify.

Economically, Russia can save itself from its overdependance on oil, gas and other commodities by doubling its bet on scientific projects like nanotechnology. Success will not be immediate, but the dividends could prove enormous in the fields of energy, medicine and defense. Success will also restore some of the scientific luster the country enjoyed during the early space age.

Russia has already begun diversifying economically. Russian companies own Getty, a U.S. chain of gasoline stations, and Evraz, Russia's largest steelmaker, has agreed to pay $4 billion for IPSCO's North American plate and pipe business. Pepsi recently bought a three-quarter share in Lebedyansky, the country's largest juice manufacturer, for $1.4 billion.

What's good about this kind of commercial interdependence is that it will eventually lead to problems and disputes, which will have to be settled by lawyers and in court. Gradually, a body of law and a habit of law will be built up. It can serve as a basis for civil and political law that has so far eluded Russia.

At some point in this process, Russian television will also need to diversify. In practice, this might mean placing blocks of air time outside state control, independent channels owned by oligarchs, or some form of national independent television, though that is harder to visualize. In any case, if the flow of information becomes more constricted, the country's prestige will suffer an even more precipitous decline. It will also mean that by depriving scientists, businessmen and citizens of information, the Kremlin will be repeating the self-destructive mistakes of the past.

Once business, law and communications have been diversified, genuine political opposition parties can be allowed. This need not be done because freedom is God's gift to humanity or because it is kinder and nobler to allow people genuine choice in all aspects of life. In the end, a measure of real accountability on the part of politicians, a real fear of losing office in unriggable elections and the heated exchange of ideas that is part of any real campaign debate will have the salutary effect of reducing social tensions and preventing destabilizing concentrations of power.

Democracy is the ultimate diversification. And Russia's survival will depend on it.

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."