A failing state

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 September, 1999, 12:00am

There have been times in Russian history when its leaders yearned to join the outside world; the age of Peter the Great comes to mind, and perhaps the early presidential years of Boris Yeltsin could be added.

But this is not one of those times. As Mr Yeltsin declines in health and authority, Russia is relapsing into the distrust and autarchy of days gone by. Mired in social misery and corruption, its authorities know they lead a failing state. As in the past, they seek foreign scapegoats while acting more to compound their problems than solve them.

The rest of the world cannot take comfort from this. With its vast resources, huge territory and educated people, Russia should be a true leader of the industrial world. It should also be a force for stability.

But it is not. From the Kremlin down, it appears to be ruled by a kleptocracy largely concerned with sending illegal funds to foreign banks. The reach of Russian mobsters has spread across Western Europe into North America. And there are serious worries about whether Russia's array of nuclear and other deadly weapons can be kept away from rogue states and terrorists.

Russians themselves are mainly responsible for this sorry condition; those in authority so far have proved unwilling or unable to meet the challenge, despite vast amounts of outside advice and aid. They had an historic opportunity after the Soviet Union collapsed, and failed.

Blessed with hindsight, many critics now call that lavish aid is part of the problem. They claim it was too often granted without clear policy objectives, and thus propped up a flawed system. They also say the US above all relied excessively on personal relations between Bill and Boris (Clinton and Yeltsin), or Al and Viktor (Gore and Chernomyrdin), which proved unreliable.

This morass presumably isn't permanent. But Russia is likely to remain an irascible nation until new leaders can instil political responsibility and economic growth in a nation which needs both.