by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
The lugubrious get-together held in Moscow last week was billed as a summit between the world's two greatest powers. Instead, it turned out to be a group therapy support session for two stricken leaders whose time seems to be fast running out, and a wake over the fast-decomposing corpse of `capitalist Russia.'
An embarrassingly addelpated Boris Yeltsin mumbled incoherent statements, eerily resembling the late, befuddled, steroid-laced Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Karl Marx, meet the Marx Brothers.
Fibber-in-Chief Bill Clinton, looking exhausted, morose, squirming in misery as reporters kept asking him about his tacky sex life. On Arbat Street, Moscow's Greenwich Village, hawkers were selling Monika Lewinsky dolls.
Comic and pathetic, the utterly empty summit recalled the black farces of Gogol. It almost made one yearn for the Cold War. American taxpayers should be furious Clinton wasted tens of millions of dollars on a absurdly expensive junket whose only objective was to get him the hell out of Washington.
While Clinton and Yeltsin were making fools of themselves, outside the Kremlin's walls, Weimar Russia was collapsing. In fact, Clinton arrived in Moscow to find Russia without a government, Yeltsin's nominee for prime minister, the stolid Viktor Chernomyrdin, having just been rejected by the Communist-dominated Duma, or parliament. The ruble hit a new low, banks went insolvent, panicky Russians saw their savings disappear.
Though Russia's economy is smaller than that of Holland - or Ontario, for that matter - Moscow's repudiation of its debts has rocked world markets. The west has loaned Russia over US $200 BILLION since 1991. Half is owed to the US government, IMF, and other institutions. The rest, to European and American banks. German banks, the biggest holder of Russian debt, are facing a financial Stalingrad: $52 billion of losses.
We have just witnessed the biggest theft in modern history. At least half of the $200 billion poured into Russia to bankroll Yeltsin's regime, has been was stolen outright, as this column has been reporting for years, and secreted in Switzerland, Monaco, Cyprus and the Bahamas.
The thieves were Russia's seven super tycoons, bankers, politicians, and, of course, the mafia, which controls 60% of all business. The west - led by President Clinton - simply closed its eyes to Moscow's Ali Babas - and continued the charade that Yeltsin's Russia was a worthy, emerging democracy, with a budding middle class, and market capitalist system. To keep the crisp, new US $100 bills coming, Russia's ruling elite - probably no more than 2,000 people - kept assuring the gullible Clinton Administration, blockheaded bankers, and credulous journalists, they were were privatizing, democratizing, and MacDonaldizing.
In May, I wrote from Moscow, ``the `new' Russia is a weird hybrid of dying communism, Asiatic bureaucracy, and gangster capitalism -with a thin veneer of western consumer culture. I don't think this unnatural state will long survive: it defies the character of Russia and the laws of gravity.' An explosion was coming, I predicted.
Twelve weeks later, Yeltsin's Potemkin Village finally came crashing down. Russia's economy went into free-fall, threatening hyper-inflation and massive food shortages. Ironically, `capitalist' Russia inflicted more damage on the world capitalist system than the old Soviet Union had ever managed. The west cut off transfusions of life-sustaining money. Long-suffering Russians gnashed their teeth in fury and humiliation at the plight of their once great nation, which had become the Sick Man of Europe, a grim parody of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, a century ago.
Today, as for the past eight years, no one is really in charge of Russia. Most Russians understand communism was a disastrous, bloody failure; in spite of nostalgia for the old days, only a minority wants to return to the Soviet system. The plundering of Russia by gangsters, bankers and business tycoons - what the western media mistakenly calls `democracy' - is nearing an end. At least the robber tycoons of the Russian Klondike didn't murder 40 million people, as Lenin and Stalin did.
Russians passionately crave strong, honest leadership, an end to gangsterism, a return to social order and national pride. But from where will this come?
One solution is an unstable alliance between tycoons, bureaucrats, and communists, who are still the nation's single largest party, that will bring back closed markets, central planning, and make the ruble unconvertible. Order will be restored, but so will the woes of the old Soviet Union: shortages, shoddy goods, industrial backwardness, a police state.
Meanwhile, the seven big tycoons, described by Russians as `richer than God,' are jostling to back maverick, retired paratroop general, Alexander Lebed, who is running for president in 2000. The gravel-voiced general is highly popular, particularly with Russian women, who find him physically appealing. Lebed's role-models are generals Park Chung-hee and Agusto Pinochet, the military strongmen who transformed South Korea and Chile into economic miracles by bankrolling successful industries, and breaking the power of marxist unions. Lebed's strong dictatorial streak, narrow mind, and simplistic solutions, appeal to many authority-craving Russians.
Russia's far-right, a crazy-quilt of Czarists, religious maniacs, bodybuilders, skinheads, nazis and fascists, is gaining strength, though leadership still lacks. No one takes the clown Zhirinovsky seriously. Anti-semitism is surging, as Russians blame the mostly Jewish seven super-tycoons, led by Boris Berezovsky, for their plight. Russians, like Ottoman Turks of the past, have traditionally little understanding of money. The main money-men of the old Soviet Union, like today's Russia, are Jews and Armenians - the same role they played, along with Greeks, in the Ottoman Empire. Russian xenophobes claim Jewish money from abroad is buying up bankrupt Russian industry. Welcome to Germany, 1932.
A military coup by active generals is also likely, particularly if Yeltsin and the Duma end up trying to fire one another in coming weeks. But Russia's brass have no idea how to solve economic problems and are unsure of the loyalty of key units. The ex-KGB, and the Interior Ministry, whose forces now equal the army in numbers, are also power centers that would play a key role in any coup. Lebed keeps warning the soldiers are in a dangerous mood.
Meanwhile, the Russian Federation that spans 12 time zones is continuing to destabilize. Remote, resource-rich regions, such as Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Yakutia, and Udmurtia, have declared political and economic autonomy from Moscow, and are dealing directly with the outside world.
The Caucasus , principally Dagestan, is in turmoil, as the region's long oppressed Muslims seek to emulate heroic, little Chechnya(Ishkiria) by throwing off Russian colonial rule. In one of the darkest blots ever on America's honor, President Clinton, while fulminating against Islamic terrorists, actually gave Yeltsin's $500 million to finance crushing the independent struggle in Chechnya, in which 100,000 Muslim civilians were slaughtered by Russia forces. Clinton very likely supplied electronic gear that allowed the Russians to assassinate Chechen leader, Dzhokar Dudayev - and had the gall to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.
Civil strife, or even civil war, is also possible. But powerful inertia holds Russia and Russians together. They have few ideological choices. Communism is bankrupt; fascism frightening. A real, free market capitalist system is impossible without clear laws, private ownership, free press, thinking middle class, and honest government that maintains order and enforces rules for all.
Russia has none of the above. It remains, as was said of Stalin, half-man, half beast. Half-European, half-Asiatic; half-modern, half-primitive. Just as Prince Potemkin's efforts to Europeanize Russia failed, so have those of Boris Yeltsin's and his foreign backers.
Bill Clinton's Russian policy, driven by ignorance, half-baked notions, and plain naivete, has been a catastrophic, hugely expensive failure. To paraphrase Churchill, Russia is a gigantic mess, rolled up in a calamity.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
Copyright © 1998 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved