The Election's Missing Issue: A Cold Peace with Russia?

By Cohen, Stephen F. | The Nation, November 23, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Election's Missing Issue: A Cold Peace with Russia?


Cohen, Stephen F., The Nation


For the first time in at least fifty years, in 1992 Rusi sia was not an issue in an American presidential campaign--indeed, it was rarely even mentioned. Given the corrupting influences of cold war politics over the years, the omission should be good news. Unfortunately, it was based on a misconceived and potentially dangerous assumption: that with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and the United States left behind all their decades-long conflicts and entered, as Presidents Boris Yeltsin and George Bush proclaimed at their summit meeting in June, "a new era of friendship and partnership."

In reality. no such "era" is under way, and its proclamation at the highest political levels and in the media may well turn out to be another of the ideological myths that have prevented stable relations between the two nuclear-laden giants for so many years. Serious conflicts in U.S.-Russian relations are already on the political horizon, with important implications for domestic policy. None of the presidential candidates, including President-elect Clinton, even hinted how they might react, or noted the impaq such tensions would have on their campaign promises.

The current image Of post-Communist ..Russia as America's new best friend and like-minded partner rests on many misconceptions, if not a general myopia, about post-Soviet developments. In most accounts, the image assumes Russian policies at home and abroad that are inspired ,and endorsed by the United States, or at least faithfully pro-American. It assumes, above all, that Russia is embracing Western-style democracy and capitalism, eschewinS imperial behavior toward the other former Soviet republics and entering a de facto alliance with the United States in world affairs, including in the realm of nuclear weapons. All these areas of Russian decisionmaking today are characterized by complexities, contradictions and uncertain outcomes, but in none of them do recent trends fit prevailing American notions of what Russian policy is or ought to be. Consider the following:

[section] The process of Russian democratization begun under former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has progressed very little, if at all, since the coBapse of the Communist Party and abolition of the Soviet Union last year. It may have even regressed, due in no small part to President Yeltsin's expansive practice of ruling by decree and his campaign to re-create "strong executive power" at the expense of parliamentary and local government. Meanwhile, elites with little interest in further democratization have gained new power in the post Communist political system and around Yeltsin himself, notably directors of monopolistic state economic enterprises and military-security officials.

At best, it might be said that democratization has been frozen for almost a year--not a good omen in a country with only fragmentary and fragile aspects of a real democratic process. Even leaving aside persistent authoritarian strains in elite and popular attitudes, Russia still lacks an authentic constitution, consensual separation of powers (or even tolerance) between the executive and legislative branches, an independent judiciary, regularly scheduled elections, a multiparty system, habits of civil political discourse and a free press capable of operating without state subsidies. Contrary to the views of American enthusiasts, few of Russia's committed democrats any longer call the post-Communist order democratic. And even some of Yeltsin's Russian supporters now deny that the democratic movement ever came to power under the Russian President.

[sections] In Russian economic life, the process of marketization is moving forward, however fitfully and painfully, but it hardly seems headed toward the "free-market capitalism" endorsed by Western cheerleaders. The leap-to-capitalism shock therapy inflicted on Russian society early this year by Yeltsin and his chief minister, Yegor Gaidar, at the urging of Western governments and banks and spearheaded by the International Monetary Fund has predictably failed to fulfill any of its reassuring promises. …

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