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A Reporter's Scorecard On Russia

The Monitor's Moscow bureau chief, ending a three-year assignment in Russia, reflects on how the country has changed and how it might change further.

The Tamagotchi "virtual pet" craze is sweeping the coolest kiddie circles in Moscow, the stock market is swinging nervously in time with exchanges around the world, and earlier this month, Muscovites chose a new city council in routine elections.

So Russia is well on the way to being the "Western-style capitalist democracy" that US and European leaders envisioned, and local reformers promised, right?

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Well, sort of...

... because nobody has heard of Tamagotchis outside a privileged elite; because though the financial industry grabs headlines, most traditional industries are moldering toward bankruptcy; and because Moscow voters bestowed their blessings mainly on candidates the powerful mayor wanted them to elect.

Russia has remade itself beyond recognition since the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. But as the pace of change slows, it is settling into channels that appear to be silting up well short of the promised land held out by the more enthusiastic reformers and their Western backers.

Perhaps, as the optimists predict, it is just a matter of patience and time. It was clearly absurd to expect Russia to step quickly and painlessly from 70 years of communism into a liberal, free-market future. But Russia's history, both ancient and modern, seems likely to shape that future as firmly as any eager young cabinet minister.

Much remains in flux. Russia is by no means a country out of control, but neither is it under the complete control of any one man or any one institution - least of all the government. It is a country with an embryonic system, but no general agreement that it is the right system: 40 percent of Russians voted for the Communist presidential candidate last year.

Still, the Communist lost, and there is little chance that this country will ever have a Communist president again. Indeed, Russian politics has little to do with ideology for the time being, and everything to do with dividing up the spoils that once belonged to the state among a handful of powerful oligarchs.

This is not an edifying sight, but it was probably an inevitable one. Anatoly Chubais's scheme to privatize the Russian economy by giving every individual a voucher with which to buy shares succeeded in destroying state control. But it failed signally in its goal of creating a middle class with a stake in a market economy. Most new shareholders sold their certificates to their factory bosses for the price of a few bottles of vodka.

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A revolutionary task

Building anything from the bottom up is a revolutionary task in a country where everything has happened from the top down for as long as there has been a czar. And the nature of the Russian economy - huge industries devoted to serving the state, not small businesses serving consumers - lends itself only too easily to monopolistic corporate capitalism where a few key players enjoy cozy dealmaking friendships with government leaders.

Especially in a country where personal relationships count for everything. In Russia, you do anything for a friend if you can do him a favor, whether in family life or in business, and Western norms of market transparency and free competition can go hang. In reformist parlance this is "cronyism," but it is simply the Russian way of doing business, and it's hard to see how it is going to change anytime soon.

It's capitalism, but it's not Western capitalism. It looks more, at the moment, like South Korea's ailing system, founded on a handful of massive conglomerates with close ties to government. That is not good news, especially since Russians rarely display the Korean-style work ethic that might allow small businesses to prosper in the shade of the giants.

Democracy, but not perfect

In similar fashion, there can be no doubt that Russia is a democratic country: Free elections have been held across the country to choose political leaders at all levels. But at the same time, they have rarely been fair elections. In last year's presidential vote, for example, the news media (owned from top to bottom by the government or big business) simply froze out Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist contender. Similarly in the regions, local governors or the big employers have the press in their pockets, and use it shamelessly.

A free press is not the only ornament of civil society to be missing from the Russian scene. Political parties (aside from the shrinking Communists) are weak and marginal, social movements are virtually unheard of, and the rule of law is sketchy at best.

This is not only because judges and policemen can be bought (which they can), or because government officials often behave as if they were above the law (which they do). It is because the vast majority of Russians - conditioned by generations of serfdom followed by 70 years of dictatorship - have no idea of their rights and not a clue how to enforce them.

Instead they prefer that "there should be a supreme arbiter in Russia," as even the arch "Western liberal reformer," Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, agreed recently. "If there is no strong power, there will not be a unified country. Without a czar in Russia there is discord," Mr. Nemtsov added.

That sort of approach hardly encourages grass-roots democracy where the law, not the president, is the "supreme arbiter." Instead, it follows directly in the Russian tradition of individuals subsuming themselves in the collective, whose will is expressed by the czar.

Yet in a country like today's Russia, where the czar is weak and broke, there are more and more opportunities for people to make their own way in life, independent of the authorities. And young people are ready to take them.

A St. Petersburg social researcher, Leonid Kesselman, has been running national surveys for the past eight years, tracking people's sense of self-reliance. Overall, he says, the number of Russians who take responsibility for their own lives, rather than expecting the state or some other outside agency to solve their problems, has crept up since 1989 from 19 percent to 27 percent.

But when you break those figures down, you get the real story. Among those over 60, only 6 percent count themselves as "internals," as Dr. Kesselman calls the self-starters. Of the under-35s, the proportion is more than 50 percent.

No real popular movement

At the same time, this new self-reliance blurs all too often into self-centeredness. "On the one hand it is positive that people are learning to live without the state, without its support and involvement in their private lives," says Kesselman. "But it also means that those people are not participating in social and political life. Things are developing with no real popular involvement."

And that is likely how they will go on developing for the foreseeable future, in a country where public opinion counts for nothing.

Mr. Chubais was probably right when he called last year's presidential elections "the last nail in communism's coffin." But what will the next election in 2000 show? Will Boris Yeltsin bend the rules to run for an unconstitutional third term, as he has hinted he might? Will the campaign allow the opposition a real chance, or will the vote serve merely to legitimize those already in power?

In the meantime, as uneconomic industries from one end of the country to the other wither and die, leaving their workers unpaid and underfed, it will be years before new businesses grow to take up the slack even if individual energy and initiative are allowed to flourish. And it might take another couple of generations before the grandchildren of today's self-starters are able to construct what Russians always call "a normal country."

There are sprouts of growth in that direction, but they will be slow to fruit. "For the bulk of the Russian people," predicts one seasoned diplomat here, "I don't think there's any chance of a dignified life until the middle of the next century."

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