Dog days for Russia and the U.S.

By Diane Alden
web posted August 2, 1999

The dog days of summer are hazy lackluster days in which most people put the vacation pictures in the family album and prepare for fall. This year those days have been punctuated by the death of American icon, John Kennedy, Jr. But the world spins and it is politics and economics as usual. Beyond the bits and pieces considered newsworthy by the mainstream media, the future is assembling out of a maelstrom of elusive judgments, perceptions and attitudes of the citizens of two great powers - Russia and the United States.

Discovering what is on the minds of citizens in Russia or the U.S. is ordinarily accomplished through surveys and polls. Used correctly they can tell business or government what people want or trends which may have significance for decision-makers. Oftentimes, these statistical tools are employed to engineer some purpose dear to the pollsters. Occasionally they are used as a mirror to inform the citizens of a country whether or not they are on the national bandwagon.

Polls and surveys may frighten people into action or soothe them into complacency. According to a recent Russian survey most ordinary Russians are despondent and afraid. Over 1,000 adults, between 18 and 60, from five main regions of the Russian Federation, were asked about their attitudes towards nuclear war, civil war, terrorism, genocide, corruption, repression, natural disasters, the end of the world, epidemics, the ozone layer, chemical radiation, catastrophic crop failure, invasion by Islam and invasion by space aliens. Pollsters Russian sociologist Vladimir Shubkin and Michigan State Professor Vladimir Shlapentokh, discovered that the average Russian fears poverty and an uncertain future the most. Lawlessness, unemployment, crime and corruption are next in importance. Down the line are worries about ecological disasters, chemical and radiation poisoning and epidemics, along with nuclear weapon proliferation. Overpopulation, invasion by space aliens or assault on Russia by Islamic countries is considered ridiculous.

Ninety percent of Russians maintain that their incomes do not keep up with the cost of living, and 70 percent raise some of their own food. Yet very few Russians feel inspired to act in regard to their circumstances, and two-thirds choose to do nothing because they believe nothing they do has any effect on politics or economics. With Russian elections coming up in the next year and a half, all this apathy would suggest a low turnout. Not so. Even though 40 percent have no political preferences, 85 percent say they will vote. Most will vote for someone who is passionate about returning Russia to its former status as a great power. Only a minority plan on voting for anyone associated with the bastardized free market reforms of Boris Yeltsin and Anatoly Chubais. Half would like to see a return to state control of the economy and only 10 percent would care to continue with market reforms. In a country where the savings of millions of individuals were wiped out overnight by "reforms," "it's the Russian economy, stupid," that is the rallying cry of candidates running for political office. Russian polls indicate if the presidential elections were held today, former hard-liner Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov would win. When Boris Yeltsin fired Primakov in May, 81 percent of Russians disapproved of the sacking of the spymaster turned politician. They perceive him to be the least corrupt of Russian politicians. Recently, Primakov's closest rival for the presidency, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, bubbled over with adulation for Primakov on NTV's Itoki, the Russian version of CNN and Larry King Live.

While American conservatives and Republicans are concerned about third party bids, the Russian people have to choose from a infinite array of political parties. Accounting for 48 percent of the vote are the larger parties such as the Communists, Fatherland and Yablocko. Other parties include, Our Home is Russia, Liberal Democratic, Right Cause, plus Spiritual Heritage, Movement in Support of the Army, Working Russia, and the Agrarian party. Almost all of them are courting Yevgeny Primakov, somewhat like the Democrats and Republicans at one time courted Colin Powell. But Primakov is playing coy and flirting with all of them. Some Russian observers are saying he will run as an independent and let his opponents batter each other to death ala Jesse Ventura in the Minnesota governors race. Analysts see wisdom in his use of his personal popularity, and running as an outsider in order to sway the Russian people. However, sooner or later Primakov will have to dance with the Duma, the equivalent of the United States Congress. As Yeltsin discovered, running as an outsider has its disadvantages when it comes to getting your agenda passed. For loyalty there is nothing like blood - or the relationship of a party apparatus to keep people in line or pass legislation.

Assuming Boris Yeltsin steps down voluntarily, Primakov is liable to be the next President of Russia. If that is the case, what kind of man will occupy the gold gilt office in the Kremlin in 2001. Some see him as the devil incarnate because of his KGB background, and consider him passionately anti-American. Others portray him as the savior of Russian bacon during various economic emergencies, notably the 98 crash and the loans-for-shares scandal. He is viewed as a leader who can manipulate international financial bodies like the IMF and WTO, move closer to China, reassemble the lost Russian Empire, while at the same time playing footsie with the Communists, the nationalists and the reformers. Russians regard him as a staunch nationalist who wants to return Russia to its position as a world power. Nevertheless, the Russians perceive him as a man who satisfies everyone, including the Americans. A one size fits all kind of guy in the manner of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair of Britain.

In a recent article in the Moscow Times, the Communist Party's No. 2 official, Valentine Kuptsov indicates that the left may support Primakov. But then so will ostensible reformers and Clinton buddies, Yeltsin and Chubais. Chubais considers Primakov a leader of a "centrist bloc of healthy forces."

On the other-hand, Russian political analyst and commentator Andrei Piontkovsky declares: "During the years of his party and bureaucratic career, Primakov mastered the art of pronouncing banalities that were received by lower level appartachiks as the height of state wisdom. It became the inviolable rule of political correctness in Moscow to be captivated by Yevgeny Maximovich's exceptional diplomatic and economic wisdom." He further stated that, "Primakov, has the limited intellect of a mediocre appartachik. The hysteria to win Primakov to their side says less about Primakov than it does about the Russian people and the party apparatus." Hauntingly similar sentiments are echoed in various quarters in the United States about the most likely candidates for the presidency, as well as the current occupant of the White House, William Jefferson Clinton.

In the United States the mainstream media has its personal presidential favorites, as do the decision-makers and party apparatus. Tons of money is being amassed, and the analysts are examining the candidates, lionizing some, ignoring most. In the latest Zogby Poll, 55 percent of those who will vote in 2000 prefer George W. Bush, while 43 percent would choose Al Gore. However, fifty-four percent of Americans polled also believe the United States is no longer a government "of" the people or "by" the people. Nor do a significant majority trust the various branches of government, or feel confident about the way they are being governed. Millions believe that the federal government and the press are corrupt.

The Russian commentator used the word "mediocre" to describe the odds on favorite, Primakov. The next Russian president, whoever he is, will have to satisfy a fearful and demoralized populace. A Russia teeming with people who want money in their pockets, food on the shelves, and some kind of secure future - a man who will also be able to reestablish national power and pride. Can a mediocrity do all this?

In the United States the money is good, there is food on the shelves, and few worry about things Russian - or national pride. Nevertheless, the next U.S. president is going to have to deal with two nations demoralized and in disarray - the U.S. and Russia. In the case of the U.S., a military establishment which has been skinned to the bone and yet required to divide those bones on multiple fronts; and a political culture which has forfeited its standards, forgotten its traditions, and lost its direction. While in the case of Russia, a nation teetering on a precipice, still unsure of its course, whether it be to build a bridge to liberty, whether to retrench to tyranny, or whether to fall headlong into economic and political anarchy.

Certainly neither country can afford another mediocre, unprincipled performance from the White House; nor a US foreign and domestic policy which lacks focus or promotes ill conceived reforms which only benefit a corrupt few.

Aimless drifting through our national dog days by responding to crises as they occur, may work in St. Petersburg, Minsk, Houston or Little Rock. But in the unpredictable and turbulent world of relations between great powers it is tempting a merciless fate.

Diane Alden has previously been published at Right Magazine and is also a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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