Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 11

By Peter Silantyev

Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, so-called “ordinary people” are not noted for political correctness, either in the West or especially in Russia–particularly if they are fed up with their lot and cannot see a way of changing things themselves. Their discontent finds expression in their vilification of the authorities, the mafia, foreigners and so on–and they name names. They speak their mind without worrying about accusations of slander, defamation and so on. But what the people say does figure in the thoughts of the politicians, firstly because politicians were ordinary people themselves once, and secondly, because ordinary people occasionally head for the ballot box or–worse–riot on the streets. The opinion of a “moonlighting” taxi-driver I chanced to meet was, I thought, typical of this. He drove me from the outskirts of Moscow into the center one day last summer. It turned out he was a geologist with a Ph.D. and he was using his old Lada to earn extra gasoline money. He had saved for many years for an apartment for his daughter, but lost all his savings: In the savings bank in 1991, and in the “commercial” bank in August 1998.

He blames his misfortune on, amongst others, Al Gore, who “helped plunder Russia.” So he supports Bush.

Our conversation took place long before U.S. Congressman Christopher Cox’s “Russian” lecture was published. Its authors, however, precisely caught the mood in Russia which helped Putin to victory–indeed, his domestic approval rating is still very high.

It should be noted that within the Russian political elite one can detect, on the one hand, a determination to exploit this mood in the battle between the “Putinites” and the “Yeltsinites.” On the other hand, there is a fear that this determination is becoming too transparent and may damage the declared continuity in politics in general and in Russian-American relations in particular. With transparency, a spade is a spade and names are named. But more of this later.

There are other reasons for other fears about the new administration in Washington. These reasons have also been used by supporters of “continuity” who have retained their influence in the media and amongst pollsters. Judging by some Russian publications preceding the U.S. elections, most Russians would prefer Gore or even Clinton to the Republican candidate. I believe my geologist more than that majority, but I understand the respondents’ fears.

The main thing is uncertainty. Russians are used to Gore because of the frequent mention of the Russian-American Commission for Economic and Scientific Cooperation, which has borne the name of the U.S. vice-president for eight years now, though the name of the Russian prime minister has changed several times. Until recently George W. Bush was practically unknown in Russia.

During the election campaign the Russian press emphasized his tough talk on antimissile defense, on passing military technology on to Iran and on Chechnya, paying particular attention to the “anti-Russian” influence of Condoleezza Rice, and the lack of foreign policy experience of the Texan candidate–basically a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions afterwards.

More assiduous readers were offered investigations into the “mercenary” interests in Russia of vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, as contrasted with the politically correct nomination of an Orthodox Jew for this post. (However, this probably worked against Gore among Russia’s anti-Semites–but I don’t want to go into the details of my conversation with the politically incorrect geologist.)

Nevertheless, experienced observers of American political extravaganzas know that pre-election rhetoric and the candidate’s CV may have little in common with his actual behavior after the elections. Some veteran Russian Americanists, incidentally, prefer the Republicans, because “it has always been easier to work” with them despite their hawkish cries. One could present counterarguments, but I am not interested here in historical statistics or an analysis of party platforms. There is something which seems to me much more important.

That something is the deliberate, politically incorrect, downright scandalous comments George W. Bush made about Viktor Chernomyrdin. Not the content, but the motives, both conscious and subconscious.

Of course, the most obvious aspect of it, and as far as we are concerned the least interesting, was that it was an attack on Gore. It was below the belt, and he could be sued for it (as Chernomyrdin promises to do). But as pre-election campaigns in the United States and in the “fledgling democracies” have shown, in politics anything goes. What is more interesting is that for the first time the scornful irritation felt in the United States over the long-drawn-out “transition period” in Russia has blown off the lid of diplomatic politeness. Bush was speaking the truth as it seems to him and to the voters, who are not inclined to delve into the nuances of recent Russian history. The hints spoken behind closed doors by U.S. and Russian negotiators are now entering open politics.

The perception of the original concepts of good and evil are the same for “ordinary” Americans and for “ordinary” Russians. In this sense Russians are impressed by the American politician’s condemnation of “villains” in their own country–unless all Russians are now considered villains. Instinctive anti-Russianism is just as dangerous as the instinctive anti-Americanism of some Russian politicians and their supporters. Neither of these bode well for the world or for me, a Russian citizen. But I respect politicians whose instinct is to go beyond putting a brave face on a sorry business; politicians who, in speaking to the Americans, also speak to us: The last eight years and billions of dollars have been spent to no avail; from now on Russia had better rely solely on its own efforts, and start by putting its own house in order.

How very transparent! And this is basically what the geologist said to me. The same thing has been felt in the words and deeds of the Kremlin for a year now. It is another matter altogether what “order” means to Russia’s current leaders and how they will impose this order. What is their understanding of good and evil? It is an interesting question. Certainly, some of the results of “strengthening the power hierarchy” and of the “dictatorship of the law” are supported by the Russian public, but by no means all and not indefinitely. As regards transparency, in a recent interview with western journalists, Putin unceremoniously talked of a “cudgel” for the oligarchs, which the state is “keeping at the ready, and may use just once, but on their heads”. I do not think a cudgel is a suitable tool for maintaining law and order, as I have previously written in relation to the Gusinsky affair. But I must qualify that by saying that sometimes I myself, living as I do under current conditions in Russia, want to grab hold of a cudgel. This is, of course, an impulsive, instinctive–incorrect–reaction. Perhaps it is this instinct which guides Putin? Or perhaps he is knowingly giving voice to the feelings of those fellow citizens of his who never got a share of the pie after the collapse of the Soviet Union–neither property, nor power, nor money?

In the USA a different pie is currently being divided up–and in a different way. Whatever proposals the Democrats or Republicans have for the budget surplus, one thing is certain: Regardless of the party affiliation of the American president, Russia will not see any “spare” money from the USA nor any loans from the IMF in the foreseeable future. This is now understood even by Unity, the so-called party of power, which is full of Soviet-style youthful optimism. The main achievement of its ideologues and propagandists, I think, was not the publication of a book for schoolchildren about the young Vladimir Putin, but a leak to the press (before their October party conference) about one of the points in their draft party manifesto, with a title which deserves to become a popular Russian catch-phrase: The 2003 Problem. It focuses on the real rather than the anti-American fears of the Russians, who have hardly recovered from the collapse of August 1998, but have had to face in just the last six months a huge number of disasters the like of which perhaps no other country has experienced in this day and age. By 2003 there will have been more disasters like the Kursk tragedy or the fire in the Ostankino television tower; the resources of the technical infrastructure created back in the Soviet Union have been exhausted. In three years’ time, the number of Russian pensioners receiving a pittance will increase to a critical level. And, last, repayments of Russia’s foreign debt will reach their peak in 2003, totaling US$17 billion, which is comparable with Russia’s entire budget at the moment.

The current level of world oil prices allows for some self-sufficiency in the budget for 2001. However, the government is right not to rely on such good fortune in the future, and is continuing to negotiate with the West with a view to restructuring old debts and renewing the IMF loan–but for a much smaller amount and for a shorter period than under the great friends “Bill and Boris”.

Chernomyrdin’s indignation was not the only reaction in Russia to Bush’s invective. I, for example, felt shame. If such a high-ranking American politician deems it acceptable to offend my country’s former prime minister, and then wins half the votes in the presidential election, then it means that the Americans feel the same way about my country–and about me. We could become embittered, and haughtily shield ourselves with a new iron curtain. We could look for new “friends” to protect us from our old ones in other parts of the world; but it is predicted that in the 21st century countries and continents will become one global village, and it will only be possible to protect oneself from trouble in isolated settlements.

For all my pride, when people around me display a negative attitude towards me it forces me to reassess myself honestly. This self-reassessment, which is essential both for the individual and for society in such a situation, should certainly not be reduced to the famous Russian metaphysical tendency to start digging about in one’s soul. A sort of crisis management of one’s own fate–and the fate of the country–takes over.

I would like to believe that something similar is now happening in Russia. I would like to believe that the process currently underway of cleaning out Russian business, with the open participation of the authorities, is a sign of the long-awaited structural changes. I would like to believe that the new division of property will result in what’s left of the country’s financial and material resources (not loans) being collected together for the good of all Russian citizens, not the new oligarchs.

I would like to believe that politicians are scrupulous–or at least that their motives are. And in this sense the belief of American voters that the “outsider” from Texas will turn out to be more honest than “our man in Washington” is shared by Russians. I think that the simple (or calculated) sincerity of Bush secured him quite a few “votes” in Russia–if only on the principle of “the worse it is, the better it will be”.

Regardless of the free-for-all at the end of the U.S. elections, and irrespective of who wins, the elections have stimulated the only choice which has any significance for Russia, the transparent choice: Manna from heaven, the wonders of Russian democracy, or belt-tightening, creative entrepreneurial spirit, an honest social contract between the state and the citizen. The final result will be known in four years–and not in America, but in Russia.

Peter Silantyev is a Russian journalist working as a consultant with RIA Novosti.