- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000


In many ways, Russia is a self-liberated country, but it's also in many ways an unhappy, confused and angry one. That's partly because almost every good thing that has happened there over the past decade and there are many has had its dark underside.

For example, the implosion of the monolithic police state has left a vacuum of the kind that nature especially human nature abhors. In place of the old, bureaucratized criminality there is a new kind of lawlessness. It's what my friend and colleague Bronislaw Geremek has called "the privatization of power." And it has, quite literally, given a bad name to democracy, reform, the free market, even liberty itself. Many Russians have come to associate those words with corruption and with the Russian state's inadequacy in looking after the welfare of its citizens. For all these reasons, Russia's first decade as an electoral democracy has been a smutnoye vremya, or "time of troubles."

That brings me to Chechnya, which is the most visible and violent of Russia's troubles. That republic is one of 89 regions of Russia it constitutes less than one-tenth of 1 percent of landmass that stretches across 11 time zones. But with every passing week, the horror unfolding there becomes increasingly the focus of Russia's attention and the world's condemnation. In just the past few days, Russian forces have renewed their onslaught against Grozny, where thousands of civilians remain trapped, unable to flee to safety. There are reports of Chechen rebels using civilians as human shields, of Russian military units using incendiary devices and fuel-air explosives.

What we are seeing is a gruesome reminder of how hard it is for Russia to break free of its own past. Indeed, Chechnya is an emblematic part of that past. The region has been a thorn in Russia's side for about 300 years. Leo Tolstoy served in the czarist army there and wrote about the often-losing struggle to make those mountain warriors loyal subjects of the Russian Empire. In 1944, Josef Stalin had the perfect totalitarian solution to the problem: wholesale deportation of the Chechen people or what we would call today ethnic cleansing.

In this decade, Chechnya has been a recurrent obstacle to Russia's movement in the direction that we, and many Russians, hope will mark its course. While elsewhere across the vastness of Russia, reformers have been experimenting with what they call new thinking, the seemingly intractable conflict in the North Caucasus has brought out the worst of old thinking: namely, the excessive reliance on force and the treatment of entire categories of people as enemies.

And by the way: It's not just the old-thinkers who are to blame for this relapse. From 1992 through 1993, a reform-ist government in Moscow left Chechnya largely to its own devices. The combination of Moscow's neglect and miserable local conditions whetted the Chechens' appetite for total independence. Had Chechnya attained that status, it would immediately have qualified as a failed state. Kidnapping, drug trafficking and every other form of criminality were rampant. It was an anarchist's utopia and any government's nightmare.

When Russia tried to reimpose control, the result was a bloody debacle. The first Chechen war, from '94 to '96, ended, in significant measure, because it was so unpopular. Boris Yeltsin wanted the fighting over before he faced re-election, so he ended it on terms that granted the Chechen authorities even more autonomy.

But once again, Moscow, having extricated itself, averted its gaze. The central government made virtually no effort to help establish Chechnya as a secular, peaceful, prosperous polity within the Russian Federation. The deteriorating conditions and free-for-all atmosphere became an even stronger magnet for secessionists, Islamic radicals and other extremists, many indigenous but some foreign as well. Last summer, some of these elements used Chechen territory as a base of offensive operations against other parts of Russia.

Now, here's where the irony is most acute: Unlike the one four years ago, the current war has had broad popular support. That's primarily because most Russians have no doubt that this time, rather than their army being bogged down in some remote and basically alien hinterland, this time it's defending a heartland that is under attack from marauding outsiders including outsiders within that is, non-Russians living in Russia.

Thus, Chechnya has fanned the resurgence of another ism nationalism. That phenomenon was the target of particular passion and eloquence on the part of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the late British historian of ideas. He saw nationalism as inherently conducive to intolerance and friction, both inside states and between them. He recognized that national consciousness exists, by definition, in all nations; but he warned that when the nation in question feels afflicted by the "wounds" of "collective humiliation" nationalism becomes what he called "an inflamed condition."

Russia today suffers from just such a condition. Chechnya has generated fears, resentments and frustrations in its own right. But it has also come to symbolize for many Russians a more general sense of grievance and vulnerability after a decade of other difficulties and setbacks, real and imagined most conspicuously the enlargement of NATO and the Kosovo war.

But while there are these ominous trends, they haven't by any means won. The political environment of their ebb and flow is still pluralistic. Atavistic voices and forces are contending with modern ones that advocate an open, inclusive society and an open, cooperative approach to the outside world.

When I was in Moscow last month, I heard the word zapadnichestvo. It might loosely be translated as Russia's pursuit of its Western vocation. Zapadnichestvo is not an ism: It's in some ways the opposite an endorsement of a liberal antipathy to isms. Moreover, I heard this word used in a favorable and even optimistic context by at least one of Vladimir Putin's erstwhile political allies on what Russians call "the right" of the that is, what we would call the liberal-democratic end of the political spectrum. Zapadnichestvo derives from the 19th-century debate between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.

There was at least an echo of the concept of zapadnichestvo in what Mr. Putin himself told me when I saw him on that same trip: He said he wants to see Russia as "part of the West." Granted, he has sent other, quite different signals to other, quite different audiences.

He's been doing so rather dramatically in recent days. We can speculate together and that's all we can do at this point on exactly what he's up to in his recent parliamentary maneuvers. But one theme that he strikes consistently, whomever he's addressing, is a desire to see Russia regain its strength, its sense of national pride and purpose. In and of itself, that goal is not only understandable its achievement is indispensable. No country can succeed without those ingredients.

It all depends on how Russia defines strength, how it defines security. Will it do so in today's terms, or yesterday's in terms that are proving successful elsewhere, or in terms that have already proved disastrous for Russia under Soviet rule? Will Russia recognize that in an age of global and regional interdependence, the porousness of borders is a necessity out of which a viable state must make a virtue? Or will it fall back into the habit of treating this and other facts of life as a vulnerability to be neutralized, or that most Soviet of all verbs to be liquidated? Will Russia understand that indiscriminate aerial attacks, forced movement of populations and civilian round-ups no matter what the original provocation and ongoing threat are the acts of a weak and desperate state, not a strong and clear-headed one?

This is the vexing question, not just about Mr. Putin but about his country as a whole. It's a genuinely open question. Moreover, the answer will probably be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Russia has had its revolution, and its counterrevolution. The last thing its people want or need is another upheaval.

Evolutions, by definition, take a long time surely a generation or more. In the final analysis, it's the Russians themselves and no one else who will decide on the character of their state.

Strobe Talbott is the U.S. deputy secretary of state. This article is excerpted from a speech at All Souls College in Oxford on Jan. 21. Q 2000, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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