Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 1999/ 7 Tishrei, 5760
Another perennial Russian story corruption has reached crisis proportions as well. The allegations now go all the way to President Boris Yeltsin and his two daughters, said to have taken bribes from Western firms that paid their credit card bills and funneled money into secret accounts. And that comes straight on the heels of charges that Russian mobsters may have laundered billions through Western banks.
The Russian scandals may also ricochet against President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore. The Clinton administration handed over huge amounts of money that were supposed to help rebuild the Russian economy and ease the pain of transition for the populace but instead paid for the oligarchs villas and luxury cars.
Democratic presidential front-runner Gore who once scribbled what newspapers term a barnyard epithet on a Central Intelligence Agency memo about graft implicating his pal, ex-Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin may be particularly vulnerable, hard though it may be to imagine Gore starring in such a colorful episode.
Some are turning this into a who lost Russia? debate, lamenting the failure of the United States to support true democrats and reformers rather than thieves. Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, chairman of the House Banking Committee, has asserted that Russias pervasive corruption and its international offshoots may pose as much of a challenge to America as communism once did.
Others, such as Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations, argue that this is not the first time America has supported a corrupt regime for reasons of realpolitik, and that its hard to see what the United States could have done differently. The pragmatists have a point though unlike, say, the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines, Russia still wants to command influence and respect as a world power. In this case, American money doesnt always buy us an ally, as the situation in Kosovo showed.
It may be dispiriting to view Americas friendship with the new Russia, once cast in the idealistic terms of helping a movement toward democracy, as akin to our ties to the Marcos family or Haitis Papa Doc Duvalier in the bad old days of the Cold War. (As for ethical blindness on the part of the Clinton administration, I doubt it can still shock.) But idealism in politics is rare and not even always desirable.
Are there true, honest democrats whom we should have embraced instead of the Yeltsin gang? Hard to say. Its relatively easy to be honest when youre out of power, with no opportunities for ill-gotten gains. Some critics say U.S. humanitarian aid should have been channeled through grass-roots civic groups, not government; but people in grass-roots civic groups arent immune to temptation, either.
Its not that Russians are uniquely unsuited to democracy or capitalism.
But historically, they havent had much experience with either, and 70 years of communism have done a lot to pervert human relations. Having been taught that private self-interest is tantamount to an anything-goes pursuit of personal gain, many people are acting accordingly now that self-interest has been declared acceptable.
The entanglement of government, business and organized crime may make Russian corruption uniquely sleazy, uniquely hard to eradicate and perhaps uniquely dangerous. But it is still nowhere near as dangerous as communism.
In the twilight years of the Soviet regime, many Russians talked longingly about a normal society one based on human nature with all its imperfections rather than ideological abstractions serving as a smoke screen for a dictatorial elite. Rampant corruption is more normal than totalitarianism. Russia today is semi-normal: The system that made a civil society impossible is gone, but the rules of a civil society have yet to develop.
The good news is that some baby steps are being taken in that direction.
The bad news is that most of the reforms the United States has supported in Russia have been a sham. The other bad news is that there may have been no better