James Chace

A lunch with Grigory Yavlinsky, sponsored in part by the Eurasia Group. Yavlinsky, beefy, tough, very straightforward, looks like a quintessential Russian leader, which is certainly what he wants to be. Probably the most prominent reformer and chairman of the Yabloko Party, he plans to run for president in the year 2000, when Yeltsin must step down (if indeed he lasts that long). He is very much a liberal, opposing the war in Chechnya and endorsing democracy and a free-market economy. He is about 46, and therefore I expect he’ll be prominent in Russian politics for some time to come. His party did well in the recent elections in St. Petersburg, so his stock is rising. Nothing very surprising in his speech: It was certainly calculated to please the Americans, as he stressed his commitment to an open society and the hoped-for connection to Europe. He is no Russian nationalist, and he will surely stand against those who may want to reassert an imperial Russia that would establish a stifling sphere of influence in the republics that used to be a part of the Soviet Union.

Some of the statistics he quoted about the current state of the Russian economy were quite daunting: Eighty-five percent of the economy is barter, so how do you collect taxes on a dozen eggs or a fur coat? Next year he expects Russia will have .04 percent negative growth; there is no way the Russians can service the $16.8 billion due on their foreign debt next year. And Russia is not competitive in the world market except in raw materials. Despite this bleak picture, Yavlinsky exudes hard optimism; the suggestions for changing the tax laws, declaring bankruptcies, instituting land reform, and putting in rules and regulations to protect investors are all very sensible. I wish I could feel optimistic about Russia, but I don’t. The vast flows of Western capital into Russia after 1991 were folly, and the problem is how to effect the changes needed while preserving democracy. Yet there is Russia with (again, according to Yavlinsky) 42 percent of the world’s population and 60 percent of the world’s resources. It certainly has the potential to be a great power again; but it also has the potential, at least in my view, to limp along like the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union without its being defeated in a war is surely without precedent. Other empires decay; the Soviet empire disintegrated virtually overnight. At the same time the United States has never been more powerful, embracing unilateralism with a vengeance. Tonight, Clinton has launched an attack on Iraq on the very eve of the vote in the House for impeachment. Although technically this is not a unilateral action, I very much doubt that the Russians and French are with us; indeed, I suspect only the British, faithful to the end and clinging to the tattered remnants of the “special relationship,” fully back us. Well, hegemonic powers usually assert their power, and we are not an exception to history. As Thucydides wrote more than two thousand years ago: “The strong will do what they will; the weak will do what they must.”