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THE WORLD : A Paradox in a Fog: Stablization, Russian-Style

August 13, 1995|Gregory Freidin | Gregory Freidin, chairman of the Slavic department at Stanford University, is co-author of "Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August, 1991, Coup" (M.E. Sharp Publishers). He just returned from a trip to Russia

MOSCOW — Four years after the August revolution that brought about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism, Russia is approaching parliamentary--and, soon afterward, presidential--elections at a time when exhaustion, cynicism and impoverishment seem to be competing with a growing civil society, political stabilization and prosperity. Indeed, the picture is so contradictory that informed prediction is next to impossible.

Cynicism toward anything having to do with government runs so deep that even a reasonable precaution like checkpoints and roadblocks to guard against terrorist attacks, especially after the bloody hostage-taking in Budennovsk, was greeted with suspicion. Some commentators suggested that the real reason paratroopers were deployed in the city was to intimidate Parliament as it contemplated sacking the Chernomyrdin government and impeaching President Boris N. Yeltsin. The government survived, and the attacks, though promised by Chechen dissident Shamil Basayev, never took place. Yet, the energy and intensity of today's Moscow are so great that the presence of what clearly must have been a formidable alien force was largely a sideshow.

Perhaps even more remarkable for a city anticipating a terrorist attack--and with many of its young still pinned down in Chechnya--was that a majority of Muscovites considered the actions of the terrorists who had seized the town of Budennovsk "understandable," according to an informal poll conducted by a popular radio station. Referring to the poll results, Emil A. Pain, one of Yeltsin's more liberal and far-sighted advisers on problems of ethnicity and nationalism, exclaimed: "Just imagine such a response from the Israeli public in the wake of a terrorist attack in some settlement!"

In Pain's opinion, Russians still do not perceive themselves as a unified national community and feel distant and alienated from their state. As a result, for many, the war in the Caucasus was, if not exactly unjust, then unjustified. The new and, for the most part, fiercely independent Russian media made it easier for the Muscovites to identify with the suffering of the Chechens than with the reason the government invaded. Those who see in Russian society a trend toward a more aggressive nationalism will do well to examine these public attitudes toward the war in Chechnya.

Many a politician and opinion-maker reaching for a popular platitude would decry the cynicism and self-seeking materialism of contemporary youth. Yet, statistics for the entrance examinations at Moscow's colleges and universities indicate an unprecedented competition for admission--eight to 12 applicants vying for one place--into various liberal-arts programs. All this at a time when a teaching job in liberal arts may buy one little more than the proverbial subway ticket. Competition for slots leading to what would seem to be a more promising career--business and finance--is much less intense.

An overabundance of conspiracy theories points to another contradiction: Such theories impute to the government a far higher degree of intelligence than warranted by its performance. Take the attempt by federal law enforcement to prosecute the producers of the political satire "The Puppets," on the Independent TV channel, for portraying Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as itinerant beggars. Even sober minds believed this action was calculated not to intimidate Independent TV, owned by a critic of Yeltsin's government, but to arouse public sympathy for the liberal media and its powerful "underdog." A far more likely scenario is that the prosecutor--in the words of the now popular aphorism attributed to Chernomyrdin--"wished to do a better job but ended up with the same old junk."

Mikhail S. Gorbachev's many attempts at resignation notwithstanding, the political culture of Russia, along with the economic calculus, do not encourage politicians or government officials to submit a resignation when their policies fail or become unpopular. So it was an unusual day, indeed--and a happy one for those who would like Russian politics to be more Western--when two of the three "power ministers" were allowed to quit. Moscow's intellectual and political elite had every reason to feel elated. But their attitude changed to chagrin as soon as Yeltsin appointed the loyal commander of the Government Protection Service as head of the Foreign Security Service. Yeltsin may simply be consolidating his power. Yet, by appointing a man so clearly unqualified to run such a complex agency, the Russian president may have only weakened himself.

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