The Book Club

Stop Treating Russia as an Exception

Dear Strobe,

Although I wonder whether the Clinton era really was any more tumultuous or controversial than, say, the Reagan era or the Nixon era, I can hardly dispute your motive in writing your book. So far, yours is the only behind-the-scenes, start-to-finish, comprehensive account of the crucial diplomacy between the United States and Russia in the first years of the Russian Federation, and we needed it. Again, because of your long friendship with the American president, your account of the relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin is and will remain unique.

Yet it is precisely because your account is otherwise so comprehensive that I found your omissions so puzzling. You are absolutely right to point out that the financial and moral corruption of the Soviet Union laid the groundwork for the financial and moral corruption of the Russian Federation: In fact, one could argue that the current corruption is partly a result of the halfheartedness of the reform process, which altered some things about Russian society but left many other things in place. It is also true, of course, that we are talking about corruption of very different scales: Property did not actually change hands in the Soviet Union. As a result, great wealth did not accumulate. How many rich Russians did you see in Monte Carlo before 1989?

Because this issue is probably the one closest to the heart of most ordinary Russians, it would have been interesting if you’d discussed some of this in your book. For that matter, it would have been more than interesting if you—or rather Clinton—had discussed some of this at the time, with Yeltsin and others. Indeed, history might have been different. What Russian politician or civil servant will now take seriously an American or IMF lecture about the importance of clean government, given the cynicism with which we treated these issues throughout the 1990s?

You are arguing, essentially, that in order to destroy something bad (communism), we had to let something less bad (oligarchic noncapitalism) grow in its place. Well, maybe we didn’t have much influence over this change anyway (despite the fact that U.S. policy—and U.S. rhetoric—often implied that we did).

Yet you are also arguing that it was OK for us to give our tacit approval to this change because we got some political concessions in exchange. Here I disagree: I would argue that Russia made most of the political concessions (agreeing to NATO expansion, getting troops out of the Baltics) because it is weak and because it had no other choice, not because Yeltsin and Clinton were friends. We didn’t have to look on, smiling, while a handful of people stole the Soviet Union’s assets, and we didn’t have to lend the Russian government the money that it was no longer able to collect in taxes and oil revenue.

To my mind, the crucial thing is to stop thinking about Russia as exceptional and to stop treating the country as if it were always a special case. In the 1990s, the IMF created special loans, just for Russia, with special rules—thanks, largely, to political pressure from the United States. Instead of that, we should offer Russia fair rules, free trade—that is, not make up reasons to exclude Russian products—and insist that Russia join the WTO on the same terms as anybody else. Loans to Russia should be made on the same terms that loans are made to Bolivia. Russia should be allowed to remain a member of the Council of Europe only if it abides by the Council of Europe’s rules, which means no human rights abuses in Chechnya.

In some ways, I think the Bush administration understands this. In some ways, it doesn’t. I am bothered by Bush’s insistence on being best friends with Putin, just as I was bothered by Clinton’s insistence on identifying himself with Yeltsin. On the other hand, I think Putin has a much more realistic sense of his country’s place in the world, and his country’s strengths and weaknesses, than did Yeltsin. For whatever reason, he also clearly identifies with America’s war on terrorism—and the Bush administration is absolutely right, on those grounds, to treat him as a close ally.

What do you think?