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For Russia, Another Cruel August?

A year after the Moscow coup, Washington still does too little to promote stability in the former Soviet Union

LAST Aug. 1, President Bush told the Ukrainians in Kiev that their drive for independence was a form of "suicidal nationalism" and that their aspirations for economic growth and human rights could best be served by an even stronger government in Moscow. The president clearly intended that his remarks would bolster the sagging fortunes of his friend Mikhail Gorbachev.

But his words unintentionally stiffened the resolve of many non-Russians to press for independence lest the West continue to back Moscow against their aspirations. And Mr. Bush unwittingly gave the green light to the coup plotters - who moved less than three weeks later - by suggesting that the United States would support virtually any steps to guarantee the territorial integrity and stability of the Soviet Union.

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This August, we face an equally uncertain situation there. While Soviet communism, the Soviet Union, and President Gorbachev are no more, once again many in Moscow - including Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev - are warning of a possible coup against Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Some military commanders - such as the Fourteenth Army's General Lebed in Moldova - have rejected civilian control over their actions, while other generals have issued shoot-to-kill orders to Russian troops in the Baltic countries. And Russians and non-Russians alike are increasingly fearful that reforms adopted so far will not help them survive what promises to be an even more difficult fall and winter ahead.

The political universe has been profoundly changed over the past year, but tragically the Bush administration has failed either to understand the nature of the changes or to act in ways that will promote both American interests and our values. Instead, it has sought to take credit for the demise of the Soviet system that it had earlier defended, and it has continued to act in ways that suggest the US is uncomfortable with the changes that have ensued, an attitude that gives encouragement to the very wors t forces in a situation that is far from settled.

Second, the administration has argued that we can do little to help the current situation - that only the people there can work things out - and it has done even less than we minimally could. And third, it has focused almost all its energies on economic reform rather than democratic change, a strategy that not only is inconsistent with our values but is likely to be counterproductive as well.

Perhaps the most unattractive element of the Bush administration's approach has been its triumphalism - the notion that we were somehow responsible for what has occurred. In addition to being disingenuous, such an attitude has prompted many to conclude that the struggle is over, that all that is needed is some tinkering with a world that has achieved a new steady state.

Such a view is wrong. The US and the West did not make the revolution: the Russians and the non-Russians did; and we must recognize that the world and especially its post-Soviet region remains in ferment. All the things we value and support remain up for grabs, and to declare victory as some have done and then go home not only is irresponsible but also guarantees that the future will be less progressive than it otherwise might be.

To take but three examples: First, many Russians regret the loss of empire. On July 27, Izvestia reported that two-thirds of all Muscovites now suffer from "nostalgia" for the USSR. That is a fertile field for conservatives and for those who want to distract attention from problems at home. The West needs to make it clear that we would oppose any effort to reestablish the empire.

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Second, the status of Russians and other minorities in all the new countries remains problematic. Many Russian generals want to come to their defense, but such a rescue operation could easily destabilize Russia and the non-Russian states as well. We must take responsibility through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international bodies. And third, the new governments of the new countries have made many decisions that violate international standards. The West needs to speak ou t.

But up until now, we have continued to act in many ways as if the Soviet Union were still alive, that what we are dealing with is really Russia plus branch offices. Our backing of the Commonwealth of Independent States has provided a cover for those Russian conservatives who want to use force to restore the empire and has contributed to instability because in many cases it remains unclear just who is in command. And our belief that the ruble should remain the currency for as many of the countries as poss ible has raised doubts that we really see the republics as countries.

Moreover, our aid program would prefer the stability of the repressive past rather than the vitality of a democratic future, a message that could be misread just as seriously this August as Bush's Kiev speech was a year ago.

But the most serious flaw in the administration's approach to date has been its obsession with economics to the virtual exclusion of concern about democracy and freedom. While the latter words are often on the lips of administration spokespeople, the only time the administration responds to developments in the former Soviet Union with vigor is when Moscow backs off from price reforms.

That has three serious consequences. First, it signals just what the Bush administration's real priorities are - that the president and Karl Marx agree on the primacy of economics over everything else.

Second, it is likely to force Mr. Yeltsin to compromise with the worst elements in his government - just as was the case with Gorbachev a year earlier - because the reformist Russian president cannot afford to give up even limited Western aid. And third, it means that we will continue to miss opportunities to support those who believe in democracy and freedom and thus contribute to a growing cynicism about politics throughout the 15 new countries.

Our current minimalist, status quo approach in a time of revolutionary change is likely to look to future historians like the rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic, an approach whose consequences will be equally serious for the peoples who have escaped the Soviet system and for those of us who want a stable, prosperous, and democratic world.

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