Overplaying the 'Blame America' Card

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Last month's blitzkrieg against Georgia unleashed a stunning wave of anti-Americanism in Russia. Russians obviously like to think that their country not only roughed up a small, poor neighbor but, more important, dealt a blow to U.S. efforts to encircle Russia with military bases. Superpower rivalry is back and, by extension, Russia is once more a superpower.

What is happening in Russia may indeed be Washington's fault, but not in the way Russians believe. Back in the early 1990s, when U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared an end of the Cold War and proclaimed a "new world order," many people hoped that the international system would henceforth be based on the Western principles of democracy, freedom, decency, international cooperation and the rule of law.

Indeed, over the past two decades the world has enjoyed a broadly based economic success. Many long-emerging economies have finally emerged, millions of people have been able to escape poverty, and many previously poor nations, including Russia and China, have become bankers to the world.

But the political picture has been far less bright. Over the past eight years -- and especially since Sept.11, 2001 -- the United States has been increasingly flouting the very principles it encouraged the world to adapt. As Russia slid toward authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin, the United States under President George W. Bush effectively squandered its moral authority to judge other nations.

How can Washington criticize abolition of gubernatorial elections in Russia if the U.S. president was himself appointed by the Supreme Court? Or complain about human rights abuses when it kidnaps, tortures and indefinitely holds terror suspects in a legal limbo? Or encourage Russia to open up if it is building a 3,200-kilometer fence on its Mexican border?

U.S. officials can declare that actions such as the Russian invasion of Georgia have no place in the 21st century only if they forget their own unprovoked attack on Iraq. And, of course, Russia's recognition of breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia bring to mind the U.S.-inspired recognition of Kosovo.

An ascendant, angry and anti-U.S. Russia is likely to be a major headache for the next U.S. president, whoever he is. Perhaps when Republican candidate John McCain solemnly declared in August that "we're now all Georgians," he meant that the world would have to deal with George Bush's disastrous legacy for a long time to come.

But blaming the United States can also be overdone. It is, after all, Russia's future that is at stake. Russia may be overly reliant on oil and gas exports and its wealth extremely top-heavy, but the country is enjoying the kind of prosperity that was never seen under communism. Its free enterprise is flourishing and its economy is vibrant, with most people able to afford a variety of goods and services that only the elites could get access to in Soviet times. Similarly, Russia may no longer be as free as a decade ago, but its citizens can still travel, access information, express their opinions and practice whatever religion they choose.

None of this came about by happenstance. It was the result of the country opening to the world after the Soviet collapse and its desire to adopt Western values. Conversely, whenever in its history Russia chose to isolate itself, it invariably suffered poverty, oppression and, worse, bloody state terror.

The current burst of jingoism has already shown an ominous side. On state television, the "liberal intelligentsia" has been excoriated as unpatriotic and pro-Western -- the fifth column in a looming struggle with foreign enemies.

Mark Twain remarked that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot. If so, recent events in Russia are starting to rhyme with some of the worst pages of the country's history.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.