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Russia Hasn't Been 'Lost' . . . Yet : U.S. policy: Instead of overreacting to the Zhirinovsky threat, step back and craft a long-term peace strategy.

January 14, 1994|MELOR STURUA | Melor Sturua is a political columnist for Izvestia and visiting professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

The Russians have a proverb: A muzhik (peasant) doesn't make the sign of the cross until he hears the thunder. The same holds true for the American political Establishment: It crosses itself only after the thunder has struck--when the lightning has already done its damage.

Look at all of the so-called Great Debates on foreign policy: As a rule, they are conducted in past terms: Who lost Eastern Europe (the Yalta betrayal)? Who lost China? Cuba? And so on. Now we can smell in the air a new "who lost" debate, this time about Russia. And the role of thunder is being played by victorious ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky.

Everybody curses him, all right. But at the same time, there is a strong feeling that if Zhirinovsky didn't already exist, he'd have to be invented because everybody benefits from him, even if they won't acknowledge it. Boris Yeltsin uses the Zhirinovsky bugaboo to extract political and economic concessions from the West, and from the United States in particular. The Eastern European countries have converted the fascist buffoon into a Trojan horse they hope to ride into NATO. In short, everybody is happy with Zhirinovsky's picturesque existence, including the movers and shakers of American foreign policy (Strobe Talbott's elevation to the No. 2 position at the State Department is the latest example of this phenomenon).

But let's stop playing with Zhirinovsky's persona for a moment and remember that the future of mankind is at stake. History is not dead yet, and there are mind-boggling questions before us: Must the United States ease pressure on Yeltsin to reform Russia's economy as fast as possible? Must the United States put more emphasis on "therapy" and less on "shock"? Will de-emphasizing rapid economic change in favor of maintaining living standards save Russia from fascism and communism? Is the notorious "Partnership for Peace" just a euphemism for a new Munich, this time sacrificing the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe on the shaky altar of the old-fashioned Great Power condominium? Will the NATO membership of some Eastern European countries and some former Soviet republics strengthen or weaken democracy? And where does that leave the states not blessed with a NATO invitation?

If we don't have the right answers for them, and at the right time, these thunderous questions can ignite lightning answers without giving us even time to cross our bleeding hearts.

We are asking Hamlet's questions. And what does President Clinton say? "We're going to work hard to try to make everybody feel good about this approach" (Partnership for Peace). But trying to make everybody feel good is just courting disaster. Politics is not lovemaking. Unfortunately.

I certainly don't feel good. In fact, I feel afraid--afraid because I already smell the very seductive aroma of appeasement in the air.

Time is very precious and is running out. History, which is very much alive, gives us one more chance to have a productive great debate. I suggest as a venue the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so ably and wisely chaired by Rep. Lee Hamilton. I suggest that he invite the widest possible spectrum of political scientists and economists, from the scholars who, like Francis Fukuyama, proclaim the end of history and promise us the Golden Age, to those who, like me, fear a new Stone Age. To make these hearings as representative as possible, I suggest the participation of four waves of the best minds: first, American scholars, then Russian emigre scholars, then Russian scholars, and, finally, scholars from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Peace is too precious a commodity to leave it solely to diplomats and politicians. We scholars are maybe more irresponsible than diplomats, but, on the other hand, we are more independent and our ambitions are better suited for productive brainstorming. Maybe we don't know how to cook, but we sure know how to stir. The fateful decisions that affect the future of our civilization cannot depend on such trivial circumstance as who is President Yeltsin's tennis partner or President Clinton's former college roommate.

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