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Is Russia a Campaign Issue?

What is to be done with Russia?

Allegations of corruption in Moscow are at a peak. A New York bank is caught up in a money-laundering probe involving the Russian mob and perhaps billions of dollars. Federal agents say Russian "moles" in Western banks might be assisting in illegal transfers. Auditors are trying to learn what happened to IMF funds the Russian central bank shifted offshore.

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The reason all this is now a big topic is that it may become an issue in the American presidential race. That's because Vice President Al Gore is co-chairman of the bilateral commission overseeing US-Russian relations.

Critics, including former US diplomats, say Mr. Gore and his staff ignored clear evidence of widespread corruption in Russia. Gore's defenders say he often warned the Russians about corruption's dangers. Critics also attack the Clinton administration for engineering billions in IMF loans to Russia while winking at Moscow's lack of sound economic practices.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Most of it lies in Moscow. But before Washington plays a "who lost Russia" game, it's worth considering the roots of this problem.

Seventy-four years of communism in Russia created a Potemkin economy that collapsed of its own internal contradictions. Trying to build a market economy from scratch shook every ex-Communist state.

Some had an advantage. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia are Western in culture and could remember the old capitalist days. But those countries from the Byzantine tradition, especially Russia, didn't have that cultural background to draw on.

Moscow has yet to build the infrastructure for a market economy to flourish. It still lacks laws allowing land-ownership, safeguarding investors' rights, or providing for contract enforcement. Accounting standards are shoddy. Soviet-style bureaucratic meddling in business continues.

Like thin grass on a lawn, these weaknesses, combined with a legacy of official secrecy, leaves ample room for the weeds of corruption, cronyism, and gangsterism to sprout.

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The West overestimates how much it can influence Russia. It can help on the margins and use IMF credits to prod actions necessary for progress. The Clinton administration is correctly cautious in deciding whether to support more IMF loans.

But there is hope. Younger Russians are more attuned to what must be done. And many entrepreneurs flourish and create jobs - without mob tactics. The US and its allies need to find ways to aid them, while ensuring new loans don't end up enriching gangsters and oligarchs.

Other aid or credits should continue if they can aid democracy and arms control or serve humanitarian purposes. Paying to help Russia dismantle unsafe or aging nuclear weapons and reactors, for example, is well worth it.

Reforming Russia takes patience, perhaps decades of it. The West should learn from its mistakes with Moscow, while not letting politicians at home exploit them.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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