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What the West sees in Russia

Theresa Clarke on how the Russian crisis has come to symbolise Western fears about the future of capitalism

The doom-laden commentaries on recent events in Russia reveal more about the fearful state of mind of the Western elites than about the problems of Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. When the West looks at Russia, it sees the mirror image of itself: economic stagnation, social fragmentation and decay.

Western commentators have expressed fears that the collapse of Russia would seriously undermine the cohesion of the world economy. Bill Jamieson has captured the British mood:

'A Russian apocalypse would dramatically expose our vulnerability....A profound structural change is under way: a shift of global power, the breakdown of an old world order and the inchoate, highly unstable emergence of a new one....Global economic prospects have seldom seemed bleaker; a Russian collapse threatens to take the rest of the world down with it.' (Sunday Telegraph, 14 March 1993)

The USA's Russia-watchers are just as gloomy about the possible fall-out from the crisis in the former Soviet Union. William Houston's new book, Meltdown, suggests that Russia will be the trigger for a global inflation explosion, precipitated by Bill Clinton under the guise of Russian aid.

Western fears that the collapse of Russia could 'take the rest of the world down with it' are not entirely without foundation. As the former Soviet Union fragments further, so it exacerbates tensions between the major economic powers vying to gain from the new situation. The con-sequence can only be to increase rivalries and undermine the Western nations' capacity to cooperate in dealing with the global slump.

Why Clinton likes Yeltsin

The possible collapse of Russia is of particular concern to America. It would accelerate the disintegration of the old US-led world order. And it would especially benefit the economic powers best placed to take advantage of any changes - Japan and Germany.

Japan is eager to gain vital minerals and resources from the former Soviet republics in the east, while Germany has eyes on Russian territory to the west and has already proposed a free trade agreement between the EC and Russia. Japan has invested heavily in Russian palladium and the gas industry. It has also made major investments in Siberia and given financial aid to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is now trying to admit these republics to the Asian Development Bank.

The Clinton administration has been keen to express support for Boris Yeltsin, not because they think him a great democrat, but because they fear the consequences for America of the break-up of Russia. The US administration knows that if Russia goes, Japan could clean up. In response to this danger, the USA has become the biggest investor in Russia. Since 1987, Western investment has totalled around $1.5 billion. Almost half has come from the USA. Anglo-Suisse, Phibro Energy and Conoco have begun oil production in Siberia. Russian gas and oil production is now being aided by a $2 billion loan from the US Export-Import Bank.

The Americans see more at stake in Russia than simply their investments. US foreign policy-makers and commentators recognise that the implications of the dissolution of the Russian Federation would not be limited to Russian territory. Writing in the New York Times recently, Stephen Sestanovich of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies spelled out the American nightmare:

'The eclipse of a pro-Western government in Russia will....reveal the precariousness of the American claim to be the only superpower. As new conflicts arise to which we have no real response and as other governments (including our closest friends) are forced to take more responsibility for their own security, our influence will inescapably wane.' (23 March 1993)

In this dark vision, keeping Yeltsin at the head of a nominally united Russia becomes the symbol of keeping the USA at the head of world affairs.

Western anxiety about events in Russia also reflects wider concerns that the failure to develop the former Soviet Union is acting as an indictment of capitalism. The triumphalism which followed the collapse of the Stalinist bloc has long rung hollow. Instead of the introduction of the market bringing prosperity, capitalism has achieved little more than third world deprivation, as the changes in the East coincided with a slump in the West.

Russia has become the focus for the West's concerns about its own depression-ridden system. From Britain and Italy to Australia and Canada, there is a growing perception among Western rulers that things are out of control, that all is falling apart. The chaos in Russia is symbolic of the New World Order.

A terrible advert

Russia and the other new capitalist republics of the East can now become as big a problem for the West as the Soviet Union was in the past. It is ironic that one of the few genuine similarities between the slumps of the thirties and the nineties is the role of the East as an embarrassment to the West. In the Great Depression, Stalin's industrialising Soviet Union appeared for a while to present a positive working alternative to capitalism. Now the former Soviet Union acts as a terrible advertisement for the failures of the market economy.

The prevailing fears about the slump in the West have been relocated on to Russia. More than 30m are now unemployed in the Western world. In the midst of slump, each government has to find something positive to say about a system which has nothing to offer. Within the Western elites, there is emerging what might be called a 'depression consciousness'. They are haunted by fears for the future. From this perspective, if Russia degenerates into a state of war and collapse, it is seen as a warning of what is to come in the West. And that is what terrifies our rulers.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

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