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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2001

Bush's stance on Russia strengthens the hardliners

So it is official: The United States has decided not to pump billions of dollars into the Russian economy until Russia cleans up its act.

This is the policy that the Clinton administration had most recently been pursuing. But it was Mr. Bush who finally called a spade a spade.

The Bush announcement caused a furor in the United States, where liberal commentators labeled it a “U-turn” that threatens relations with Russia, the world's second nuclear power.

I agree with Mr. Bush. It's time the Kremlin realizes that Russia's future is bleak unless it roots out corruption that has hit a level that is unparalleled in developed nations.

It appears the Kremlin was not surprised by Mr. Bush's frankness.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reacted by saying the Kremlin is ready for direct talk with the U.S. administration once Mr. Bush gets settled into the presidency.

Of course, Mr. Ivanov added that the Kremlin prefers to discuss such matters in direct talks rather than through the media. But even that was a fairly weak reaction to the tongue-lashing by Mr. Bush, who called Russia “a system in which the intention of the capital is never fulfilled.”

One can argue with the word “never,” but the statement is generally right.

The Russian response was muted because the Kremlin has realistic expectations of the next U.S. administration based first on its own low credit rating and, second, on Mr. Bush's election platform that left little hope for easy money from the United States.

Moreover, some Russian analysts rightly noticed that the Kremlin and its parliamentary vassals even exhibited satisfaction with Mr. Bush's pronouncement.

Why is that?

Primarily, because Mr. Bush's foreign policy emphasizes unilateral security measures, notably plans to establish the controversial national missile-defense system, that some of the U.S. allies such as France and Germany oppose.

And this gives the Kremlin a long-coveted chance to split the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military-political alliance of Western states, that is expanding toward Russian borders despite Russia's desperate protests.

Even more importantly, Russia's President Vladimir Putin is bent on reinstating the dictatorship of the state in Russia by centralizing control over the provinces, wiping out the opposition, subduing the press, and remilitarizing the country.

The new U.S. stance gives him a working excuse to do so, at least in eyes of the generally xenophobic Russian populace.

There's no need to worry for a while, though.

As far as arms control goes, the Kremlin will likely try to negotiate with the United States, trading a neutral stance by Russia on the Bush administration's proposed U.S. missile shield for the United States's approval of Russia's desire to equip its new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple warheads.

The bottom line is that Russia - just like its old negotiating partners from the former Bush administration - prefers to deal with the uncertainty of the modern world by boosting its strategic weaponry.

As to foreign aid, it is of less concern to the Kremlin, which can control cash flow in Russia to benefit the elite once the centralized control system is back in place.

No wonder Gennadi Seleznev, Russia's parliament speaker and a Communist, who couldn't care less about market reforms, welcomed the Bush initiative by saying, “his premise is absolutely correct.”

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at msigov@theblade.com.



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