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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / April 19, 1998 / 23 Nissan, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Russian-German-French structure of consultation is good development

PARIS -- The knockabout in Moscow between Boris Yeltsin and the State Duma over the president's nomination of Sergei Kiriyenko as prime minister reflects an institutional disorder far from solution.

The Duma is set up in a way which has given it an investment in irresponsibility. Irresponsible opposition is virtually the only power available to it. The Duma has deployed this power against Mr. Kiriyenko's nomination despite Mr. Yeltsin's Mama Boristhreat to dissolve parliament and call new elections, and his offers of apartments and dachas to complaisant deputies.

The president has more power than is good for him or for the state, functioning as a latter-day tsar, while behind his visible conflict with the Duma is the half-visible struggle among that handful of men who dominate the privatized economy, each with their favored politicians, and each with his own publishing or media group.

Even Scientology now is alleged to be part of the mixture, since not only is Mr. Kiriyenko accused of being linked to the sect -- which he totally denies -- but credible West European reports claim that the Scientologists are, amidst the general Russian economic disorder and moral disarray, actively recruiting people in the high-technology and military-industrial sectors. If true, that gives one to think.

Something else which has yet really to influence how the Russians perceive their present situation is the great geographic and demographic change the country has undergone since 1989. The scale of the change is ill-appreciated in the West as well, which is inclined to take it for granted that because Russia is the former Soviet Union, it is still the same country.

It is not. It may still be nearly twice the size of the United States, but it is a quarter smaller than the former Soviet Union. Of its present territorial extent (some 17 million square kilometers, or 6.6 million square miles), less than ten percent is arable.

It possesses less than 60 percent of the population of the former Soviet Union. The United States' population of 264 million people is nearly 80 percent larger than the 148 million population of today's Russia.

There actually is an advantage to the Russians in this demographic change. In the Soviet Union only 55 percent of the people were ethnic Russians. In today's Russia that figure is 81.5 percent, with less than 20 percent of the population belonging to 14 acknowledged minority nationalities. It is a much more homogeneous country than it has been since the 18th century.

The present borders of Russia are by no means forever fixed, but while Belarus and even Ukraine, both Slavic countries, might in the future move back toward a closer link to Russia, most of the other new nations created out of the old Soviet Union are likely to want to maintain national independence.

An eventual linkage of many or most of them with Russia on lines something like those of the earlier European Community is imaginable. But that is a prospect very distant from the vague Commonwealth of Independent States that now exists, and in certain aspects of international law claims succession to the U.S.S.R. The idea of an ambitious Russian drive to recover the territories of the old Soviet and Russian Empires is, in today's world, futurological fantasy, or a worst-case war-game exercise.

Multinational empire incorporating backward populations has, in any case, more disadvantages than advantage, even when natural resources are considered. Russia is rich in resources. Its problem is that in the guise of privatization the population has been swindled of its national resources and industry by the people who are now manipulating its politics.

Russians are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as a country like other countries. They still possess the crucial military assets of superpower rank, as well as the diplomatic ambition, as they demonstrated in the Iraq affair earlier this year. Their notion of a ``European troika'' composed of Russia, Germany, and France -- which seems to have Washington on edge -- is a constructive move in this context, since it re-involves them with the West at a moment when Washington's tutelage of the new Russia has become irksome and NATO expansion positively annoying.

The ``summit'' meeting of this troika, held last month in Moscow, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Jacques Chirac in attendance, accomplished very little in practical terms, and was overshadowed in public by Mr. Yeltsin's dramatic, and as yet unachieved, remake of his government. But there will be another ``European summit'' next year in France.

The French naturally welcome any counterweight to the United States in world affairs, and while the present German government fears fraying its relations with the United States, there soon will be German elections and quite possibly a new government with a Social Democrat as chancellor. There will also soon be a sharply changed European Union, when the single European currency comes into existence in January.

A formal Russian-German-French structure of consultation, which is all that it is (thus far), suits certain of the interests of all three countries. It particularly serves the Russian interest in being taken seriously again. It binds Russia to Western Europe at a moment when NATO expansion pushes it away from the West. So long as all remains unresolved in Moscow, this has to be good thing.


4/16/98: Violence in society comes from the top as well as the bottom
4/13/98: Clinton's foreign policy does have a sunny side, too
4/8/98: Public interest must control marketplace
4/5/98: Great crimes don't require great villians
3/29/98: Authority rests on a moral position, and requires consent
3/29/98:Signs of hope in troubled Russia
3/25/98: National Front amassing power
3/23/98: NATO's expansion contradicts other American policies
3/18/98: The New Yorker sought money, but lost it
3/16/98: America's 'strategy of tension' in Italy
3/13/98: Slobodan Milosevic may have started something that can't be stopped

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.