I'm not sure that the policy at any step along the way was ever thought out
well enough to understand what was being created.
She is an independent journalist and the author of KGB: State Within a
There was no real effort made in order to figure out the reality in Russia.
There were a lot of perceptions. There were a lot of books written on the
history of the Soviet Union by the people who never visited this country and
had little understanding about what was going on. There was the perception
that after the Soviet Union fell apart, we can very quickly set up democracy
and market economhy in the country.
What does it seem that the U.S. wanted in Russia? Democracy or simply
unfettered free markets?
I don't want to believe in the conspiracy theorists. I think that the United
States did want Russia to become a good state, and for good reasons. The
Soviet Union was a threat to the democratic world during all the decades of its
history and, therefore, from the Russian point of view, the United States had
tried to do their best to weaken Russia as a military rival.
Secondly, I think that many of those who advised the American administration
judged Russia by its bad political culture. And therefore there was a sort of
assumption that because Russia had such an undemocratic political culture,
there was no need to try to create any real democratic situations in Russia.
Probably the theory and the whole conception of the American politics
was--'Let's help to turn Russian government-owned enterprises into the private
hands." And that's it.
I want to point out that the kind of changes that happened to Russia over
those 10 years were great. That, in fact, I do think that what happened to
Russia is a sort of a miracle because Russia escaped from the fate of
Yugoslavia. We escaped the civil war. The empire got dissolved without
overwhelming killings and without a civil war. That's a real miracle and
that's a real great advantage. That's a real great achievement of the Yeltsin
regime and he should be credited for that.
However, I think that there was great disbelief about the possibility of
establishing the true democracy of the Russian soil on both sides of the ocean.
I think, you know, if we ask those involved in the policies towards Russia in
the United States if they believed in the possibility of creating a democratic
state in Russia, I think the answer will be, no, we didn't believe. We knew it
was impossible. Russian political culture doesn't, and didn't, allow for that.
So, our goal was to make Russia less dangerous to the United States, therefore,
to make the life of the American taxpayers more secure and they succeeded in
that. And, secondly, help Russians get on the road to market reforms. In this
respect, I think U. S .policy succeeded.
My sense of this is that the economic policies that were adopted here, and
that were encouraged by, for instance, the U.S. government and other Western
governments--the international financial institutions--these policies, in and
of themselves, were not bad. In other words, to create a market system, and to
be a part of the creation of a democratic, open society-- privatization,
even--none of these things were bad in of themselves. It was simply the way
that it was actually executed here.
He is a senior analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and writes from Moscow on
Russian domestic affairs. He was a writer with Voice of America and has worked
as a business columnist with The Moscow Times, and as Moscow
representative and program officer for Freedom House.
It became apparent, at least to me, fairly early on--and, you know, this is by
simply following the Russian principle, that many Russians were reporting, that
what was supposed to be going on, which was an empowerment of the average
person, bringing him into a market system, making him a stakeholder, et
cetera--was not going on at all, but [that] there was really kind of a
large-scale heist going on of the former Soviet economy. And a lot of people
were talking about that, fairly early on in the process here, but there was
sort of cognitive dissonance about it in the West...
Did we, in the end, continue to cheerlead for Yeltsin as a democrat and a
reformer far after [we had reason to think he wasn't]?
Absolutely. The first questions probably should have been raised in the
October 1993 parliamentary uprising which Yeltsin crushed with force. That was
a murky affair in the sense that the people who led the rebellion were
unattractive, to put it mildly. But, at the same time, the, the ruthlessness
with which it was put down should have been a signal to Washington, to other
Western governments, that there was more than an authoritarian streak in Boris
Yeltsin and in his administration. But we had already staked on Yeltsin, and
several months after that rebellion was crushed, we basically signed off on the
new December 1993 constitution which enshrined near-authoritarian powers in the
Russian presidency. In that sense, we were saying, at that point, [that] our
policy towards Russia is Boris Yeltsin. He is the embodiment of our policy in
Russia. We were picking individuals.
What was our policy? Was it honestly to promote, to try to help this
country become a democracy?
. . . I think there was a sense--it was sort of a combination of arrogance and
naivete--that we could just plug in our model of a market democracy. Sort of
like a tape player, you just plug it and turn it on, and it works, and
everything is fine. And we also thought that there was just no way that the
Russians themselves wouldn't like it. Of course it didn't turn out the way,
the way it should have turned out, if we were genuinely concerned about
developing a real democratic state....The result was, probably on some levels,
the American government became cynical. But, I think a lot of it was just
really based on this combination of arrogance and naivete that it would be that
easy to do, and it didn't turn out that way.
What about the Clinton Administration defense that they had no choice?
Boris Yeltsin was the democratically elected leader of this country, and of
course they had to deal with Boris Yeltsin. That's what governments do.
That can sort of become the fallback position for defending any policy. I
don't rule out the possibility that the way things turned out might have been
inevitable, but I don't really know that, and whatever leverage we had, I think
there was more than ample room to try to use it. For instance, there is still
talk that the 1993 referendum, in December 1993, which was held simultaneously
with parliamentary elections, and which approved the constitution, which Russia
now operates under, was rigged. That constitution basically gives Yeltsin
nearly dictatorial powers, or, certainly, authoritarian powers, and there were
a lot of good democrats back then who were questioning whether this is the
right thing to do. They said, "Even if you like Yeltsin, what if somebody else
So we could have said something, back then. We could have said, even in a
diplomatic way, that we would approve something less where there was more
respect for the separation of powers. So, no, I think that's a copout. I think
that there was room for skillfully trying to push the Russian government, as
long as the Russian government was a recipient of aid, the basis of which was
that it was moving toward a democratic form of government. There was room to
try to push them more in that direction. And it was never ever tried as far as
I could see.
How much of the failures can be blamed on misguided U.S. policy?
Again, I don't know. It's a hard thing, in the end, to say whether it would
have been different, depending upon the role the U.S. government had played,
and the kind of advice that it gave. I think I've gotten, sadly, in a sense,
sort of a renewed appreciation for the huge role that sort of historical legacy
and historical baggage plays in development.
In other words, Russia has had an authoritarian system of governance for
centuries. It had the experience with Soviet style communism for seven decades
prior to this. It makes it very difficult for the kinds of things one would
hope to see happen.
But, again, I think that is sort of an irrelevant question. If we were going
to pursue a policy where we were going to be that intimately involved in the
internal politics and economics of the country, we should have insisted that
what we hoped to happen, happened. And if it didn't happen, we should have
publicly spoken out against it.
Well, I think clearly that there was a lot of ignorance involved in what reform
was really about and what reforming a system that had come from 70 years of
communism would take, and that you had to involve institutions. That reforms
were by definition political. That it wasn't just a technical, neutral
endeavor, that you had to really involve the whole spectrum of players of
people of market, participants of legislatures, etc.
The author of Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to
Eastern Europe, she is a research fellow in the Institute for European,
Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.
There wasn't that realization. And in some respects one shouldn't have
expected there to be that realization, because these were new phenomena -- how
to reform a post-communist system...some of the ignorance was understandable.
However, what was, I think, not understandable and not excusable was the sheer
arrogance and the hubris with which many of these advisors entered the scene
and said we have the answers. We know what to do. And they came with their
cliches and tried to sell people on both sides of the Atlantic on these cliches
and on the idea that they had the answers.
American policy has always declared that what we wanted to see in Russia and
in the other countries of the Soviet Union was the growth of democracy, civil
society, rule of law, and, the growth of a market economy, free enterprise,
capitalism. There's always been a problem in understanding that those two
things don't necessarily go hand in hand. In some cases you may have to choose
one or the other.
He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from
And I think what did happen is that by force of circumstance, the U.S.
government was forced to choose. And we chose the economic over the political.
We chose the freeing of prices, privatization of industry, and the creation of
a really unfettered, unregulated capitalism, and essentially hoped that rule of
law, civil society, and representative democracy would develop somehow
automatically as a result of that.
I mean, part of this was an ideological view--very prevalent in Washington, in
both the Bush and Clinton administrations--that capitalism brings democracy as
an inevitable consequence. And this is really an ideological belief, not a
tested demonstrable theory applicable to a place like post-Soviet Russia.
And you've said that we push policies that essentially said 'greed is
I think our attitude was that what Russia really needed in its culture was the
idea of greed. That the Soviet Communist egalitarian leveling approach had
been so deadening to enterprise, so deadening to individual initiative that
there was a view that a little greed would be a very healthy thing in
I think what many of these people did not understand was that greed had been
part and parcel of the Soviet Communist system. It had simply operated
under-the-counter. Nobody got along according to the rules in the Soviet
Union, and that in fact the basis for a very large-scale organized crime
existed well back in the Soviet period and began to flourish enormously during
perestroika, and once all the controls were off within the end of the Soviet
Union, these criminal gangs and many of their new associates in business suits
had the ability to rob what is still an enormously rich country and make
fantastic sums of money.
I don't think that in post-Soviet Russia the real problem was a lack of greed.
The problem was a lack of genuine law, because in the Soviet period, what
passed for law, what passed for legality, what passed for law enforcement, were
so discredited in the minds of the Russian people--and quite legitimately
discredited--that what was really needed in the post-Soviet Russia was a new
culture of law, a new culture of civic society, not a culture of greed.
What if anything did our policies have to do with creating the
I think our policies had a great deal to do with creating the oligarchs. I
know there has been more recent tendency by the spokesmen from the
International Monetary Fund (IMF), and from the U.S. Treasury to claim that
this was really all things Russia did to itself. But in the early post-Soviet
era, Washington--both through the IMF and U.S. Treasury--played an enormous
role in determining what kinds of economic policies would be created, what kind
of winners and losers there would be.
Some of the people who later came to be called the oligarchs were among the
most favored private businessmen in terms of doing all kinds of contractual
relationships and in having the kind of political access that made it possible
for them to create these enormous financial institutions and engage in all
kinds of nefarious economic and political activities. The idea that we in the
West, we Americans, or the international financial institutions, or some of the
big European financial institutions, have clean hands in this matter, I think
is simply wrong.
Sadly, the dominant American view stressed that Yeltsin was a pro-West leader
and the basis for reform. They thought the basis for reform was a movement to
a free market first, and then Russia would arrive at a liberal democracy.
Thus, in effect, the West supported the most primitive, the most simplified
mode of reform--market-based reform. I don't remember when the West ever
insisted that Yeltsin learn how to compromise, how to speak to, and with, the
parliament. No, to the West, the parliament, because it had Communists in it,
was a source of evil, the last bastion of all that was reactionary.
The author of Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, she is senior
associate in the Carnegie Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program, and a
former deputy director of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and
Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
What was important to the West were not the rules of the democratic game. They
were interested in their partners. It was a purely pragmatic approach, a
purely utilitarian approach.
How do you explain that to yourself--that our definition of reform in Russia
became totally identified not just with Yeltsin, but with this one political
I think it's pretty obvious that the West chose the simplest way which would
turn out to be the fastest. To seek support from a group of like- minded
people in the Russian establishment, those who look similar to them, who speak
wonderful English, use the same (categories), are of the same blood. This group
turned out to be Chubias's team. There weren't many economists who spoke in a
Western tongue and behaved as real Western people. So it is absolutely natural
that the Western governments, having found their "agents," decided to work
They lost sight of one very important factor, however, that the group who was
similar to them in spirit and mentality was very small and didn't have
political support in the society.; And this was the first mistake--to support
people without political influence, those who would be thought of as
Second, when you support someone, you cross a line and get too close. This
buddy-buddy relationship between Western political teams and the team of young
Russian reformers was also a mistake, because this familiarity robbed the young
reformers of their identity, and caused them to be viewed by the people as
conduits of Western influence. The West became responsible for their
I think the West surrendered its own identity and in effect gave up the rules
of its own game when it worked with Russia. For some reason, when it worked in
Poland and Hungary, the West supported parliaments, referendums, and all the
democratic institutions. But in Russia, they accepted a czar. The reforms
could be carried out in a very demanding way, with the help of the oligarchs.
It's what I call a political double standard. Essentially, the entire policy
of the West was based on a lack of belief that the Russian people would
understand and accept liberal democracy as its own. That's why it decided to
hit it over the head, to put a czar above the people, and to work through a
very small group of technocrats.
How much of what has gone wrong in the last decade can be laid at the feet
of United States policy?
He was Second Secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (1993-1995).
That's very hard in the Russian context. I guess I agree with secretary
Madeleine Albright's cliche that the future of Russia is ultimately for
Russians to decide. I think, however, there's no question that we were a factor
in making it more difficult and making the lives of ordinary Russians more
I think there's no question that's the fact. How much, I can't say.
Ultimately, it is their own problem and ultimately they've had a leadership
that has been not very good at addressing its needs. But certainly we have
been a factor--usually never by intent, often by ignorance.
. . .we eroded support for the democratic processes. We created the
impression that the United States itself was not particularly concerned about
the democratic development of Russia-- that what was important was this
economic side. Given the way the economic side developed--with privatization,
high-level corruption, cronyism and so forth--many Russians drew the conclusion
over time that this was, indeed, the intended result of American policy.
He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1994-1997.
Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, you will remember the very famous
"end of history" article, which at that time did reflect the views of a large
segment of the American political-business establishment [that] there really
was no alternative to democratic politics and market economies, and that once
you removed the obstacles that happened to the Soviet Union, this would develop
So there never really was any doubt about the direction in which we were
urging Russia to go, and I think the view was, again, one of intellectual
arrogance, both here and in Russia, that if people didn't understand this, it
was because of a certain amount of ignorance, not because they have legitimate
concerns. And that what we needed to do was push forward on reform as rapidly
as possible because that would lead to the types of benefits that would
ultimately persuade these people of the correctness of the policy.
who is putin? ·
yeltsin legacy ·
whither russia? ·
u.s. policy ·
facts & stats ·
video excerpt ·
readings & links ·
tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation
top photo copyright © roger ressmeyer/corbis