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
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
'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