Russia Still Redeemable

From both the right and the left, critics of U.S. policy toward Russia have had a heyday in recent weeks asserting that the Clinton administration got Russia wrong. The refrains are by now familiar: "Clinton became too close to Yeltsin." "The IMF was naive." "The West funded crony capitalism." "Russians are not culturally predisposed to markets," and so on. The policy conclusion from these observations is that the United States neither can nor should do anything more to aid Russia but instead should reconstruct a fire wall around this basket case of a country and try once again to contain the Russian threat to markets and democracy around the world.

This is a premature conclusion for several reasons. First, the argument assumes that we can ignore Russia. We cannot. As Russia's economic crisis continues to worsen, the prospect of real tyrants coming to power in Moscow increases. If Russia's fascists or hard-line communists eventually emerge on top, Iraq, Iran and Libya will become nuclear powers, Russian volunteer soldiers will be flooding into Kosovo, Yugoslavia, and military conflict will ignite throughout the former Soviet Union.

Second, the call to abandon and contain Russia assumes that "reform" in Russia is dead forever. In fact, even in the middle of this latest economic crisis, Russian leaders and the Russian people have not yet rejected markets and democracy full stop.

Support for markets has reached its nadir. Prime Minister Primakov and his new team of Gorbachev-era ministers plan to assign a greater role to the state in managing the economy. Strapped for cash after defaulting on its debt, the government will print money and thereby fuel inflation. To control inflation, the new Russian government will introduce wage and price controls; some governors already have done so. Eventually, this set of policies will produce shortages, rationing coupons and a black market.

Yet, even in Russia's worst economic crisis of the decade, no serious political group has advocated a return to the command economy. Even the Communist Party of the Russian Federation recognizes the right to private property, the function of markets and the inevitability of international economic integration. Russia may have to endure another round of ill-devised state policies for managing the economy, but even under the extreme conditions of economic disaster, no credible political force has articulated an alternative non-market future for Russia.

The picture is not so gloomy yet regarding political reform. To the surprise of many, Yeltsin and the parliament practiced compromise and followed the Constitution in forming a new government. Likewise, Russia's patient citizens have not rebelled in response to the economic meltdown. This adherence to the democratic rules of the game and this social calm could change quickly as Russia's economy worsens. If one trigger-happy soldier fires into a peaceful demonstration, calls for violent overthrow of the regime will escalate. To date, however, those advocating authoritarian solutions to Russia's latest crisis remain in the wings.

A third and final assumption of the containment school is that the West can do nothing to change the course of reform/collapse within Russia. Instead, the United States must sit on the sidelines and hope for the best. This assumption also is flawed. While weakened and marginalized as a consequence of both events in Moscow and Washington, the United States -- and especially nongovernmental American organizations and actors -- still can play a role in helping Russia remain committed to markets and democracy.

Until the new Russian government has a credible anti-crisis program, Western assistance programs for macroeconomic stabilization such as International Monetary Fund loans must be suspended. At the same time, other kinds of assistance aimed at fostering microeconomic reforms should be expanded. For instance, programs that provide small business loans, projects that furnish information about Western markets, business training and exchange initiatives all should be expanded. Similarly, technical assistance projects that facilitate the development of important market institutions such as laws governing property rights, disclosure, bankruptcy, pension funds, taxes and the securities markets also need to increase.

Since independence in 1991, Russia has yet to attempt genuine market reforms. If the opportunity arises for a renewed attempt, the people and knowledge must be in place to make reform work.

On the democratic front, the United States must send clear signals to Russian elites about the negative consequences of circumventing the democratic process, in particular, the rules for the next presidential election.

At the nongovernmental, grass-roots level, programs that promote democracy and democrats in Russia also must be enlarged -- projects that provide expertise regarding the development of parties, trade unions, federalism, the rule of law, independent media and civil society. These should be expanded, not curtailed, as is presently planned. Russian democrats who are battling for the heart and souls of these organizations must be supported, not abandoned.

Obviously, the kinds of assistance programs outlined here will not "solve" Russia's economic crisis. But they may be the long-term investments that will save Russia from future crises. More immediately, these kinds of programs also offer Americans a way to remain involved with Russia during this difficult period. These programs can be administered without transferring a dime to the Russian state. They also can be pursued without presidential leadership in either the United States or Russia.

It is only seven years since the Soviet collapse, and Russia's revolution has by no means ended. The days of presidential summits may be over, but the work in the trenches has just begun.

Michael McFaul is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.