Russian reasons

There is a new optimism about Russia. Douglas Hurd, who here recalls his meetings with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, says it is justified. Even the prospect of a populist president should not alarm the west
August 19, 1997

The past few months have seen a marked increase in confidence in the west about Russia. This is true among politicians on both sides of the Atlantic; but they are naturally optimistic, otherwise they would not enter that profession. Diplomats, who have a cooler temperament but are still paid to be positive, have also registered this up-turn. So have investors; and even among the more serious journalists there has been a marked rise in expectations.

Two factors have contributed to this development. One is the improved health of the Russian president. Not many of us expected a few months ago to see Yeltsin bounding about the world with that definiteness we used to associate with him. Second, now restored to health, Yeltsin also appears to have taken important decisions. In the economic sphere, he has chosen two reformers: Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov. In the diplomatic sphere, he took the difficult decision to make the best of the western decision to enlarge Nato.

The fundamentals also are changing slowly for the better. The combination of huge natural resources and a highly educated people is the foundation of economic hopes for Russia. But the proverbial patience of the Russian people has also been crucial in the past few years. (Compare, for example, the impatience constantly shown by the French electorate in much less formidable circumstances.) That patience has been a necessary condition of the political and economic revolution that has been taking place-three steps forward, two steps back.

Democracy comes in different shapes and sizes. There is the democracy to which we are accustomed, based on a parliamentary system and political parties. But there is another type of democracy which, if you are being rude, you call Bonapartist and if you are being polite, you call Gaullist. This model, which places a strong emphasis on the elected president, forms the basis of the Russian constitution, as Yeltsin knows well. We can conceive of circumstances in which, under the next president (whether Lebed or someone like him), the Bonapartist/Gaullist route is taken. It would not have to be a military tyrant, or someone who is going to resurrect the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but an elected, populist president-a first consul rather than an emperor. I can imagine such a president emerging in Russia and that should not necessarily cause us to despair.

On the economic side, what is lacking is a tax base-the ability of the government to meet its liabilities and pay its employees not by printing money or by borrowing money from abroad, but by raising it from its citizens through an orderly tax system . That is part of a greater lack-indeed, the greatest lack at the moment: a proper legal order. Russia has a huge quantity of legislation, but that does not amount to a settled legal order. Indeed, during what was called the battle of the laws, different authorities-Moscow, the cities and the states of Russia-churned out laws which contradicted each other. This has now improved, but no businessman dealing with Russia can say that there is a proper legal system.

Alongside the lack of a proper legal system comes the growth in crime and corruption. The present level of crime is a formidable obstacle to any kind of civilised life- 32,000 people were murdered in Russia in 1993. The government still needs to establish a proper system for detecting and punishing crime, as well as a system of administration which does not rest on constant lubrication of public servants by private sources.

As foreign secretary I thought that personalities and personal relationships counted for about 10 per cent of the shape of international events. In the EU council of ministers or around a cabinet table in Downing Street, the power of office and the merit of argument add up to about 90 per cent. But there are occasions when the remaining 10 per cent, which derives from your trust in the person you are dealing with, is crucial. In Russia, because of historic circumstances, the percentage is higher; so let me touch briefly on my observation of the two key personalities: Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

I saw Gorbachev four times in the Kremlin. I do not think he showed me any particular favours. He had no obligation to see me. As foreign secretary it was not something I could expect, but he found it pleasant to talk to visiting western ministers. Our conversations did not focus on relations between Britain and Russia, although these crept in occasionally. We talked about whatever was on his mind. He would enter that room in the Kremlin, his eyes dancing with pleasure at the enjoyment of his own intelligence and success. He would talk about the meeting he had just come from, about the young communists he had just tied in knots and who had gone away persuaded by what he had said. He used to tease his subordinates in that slightly sinister Soviet way, but without the malice which others have used. There was a flow of argument in his discourse. His mind moved through a flow of reason. I did not think of Gorbachev at that time as an idealist, but as an adept and admirable manager of decline. (Both Eduard Shevardnadze and George Bush believe he was an idealist.)

Yeltsin operates differently. He does not move with the flow of reason. At any moment he gives the impression that his position is absolute and immovable. He reinforces this impression with a series of physical gestures, some of which almost involve the breaking of glass. His voice, his body and his hands illustrate his message: "I have made up my mind, this is what I am going to do." Then he moves on-not in a steady line through reason, but in a jump-to a position equal-ly absolute and expressed with equal force, but different. Behind these leaps is a remarkable political shrewdness which cannot be translated into words or into the kind of reasoning familiar to diplomats, but is nevertheless a powerful and successful force. Gorbachev did not possess it, but it has carried Yeltsin through many difficulties.

The first time that I met Yeltsin in Moscow when Gorbachev was still in power, I noted two things in my diary, one right and one wrong. I predicted that he would prevail over Gorbachev in the contest of power which was getting under way. And I described him, wrongly, as a dictator-in-waiting. I was de-ceived by the absolutism of gesture and speech into believing that once he had power he would exercise it in an absolute way.

Returning to institutions, and, in particular, our institutions, it is a sign of the immaturity of the EU that it seems only able to concentrate on one subject at a time. Matters which are more pressing than the single currency are being neglected. We should be more open economically towards Russia; even contemplate eventual Russian membership of the EU. For now I am not happy about the way the anti-dumping arrangements work. We should give Russia the benefit of the doubt on these matters where the statistics are dubious.

On Nato enlargement Yeltsin took the decision to bargain rather than to shout. For our part, we do not need to discuss whether Russia is in theory a superpower. We do need to recognise that it expects to be treated at least on an equal basis and, in some matters, because of its nuclear arsenal, it expects to have a privileged relationship with the US.

I do not see the Baltic states, the Ukraine or any other state of the former Soviet Union entering Nato in my lifetime. Having said that, we need to devise other means by which democratic states wishing to have an association with the west can do so. Austria, outside Nato, had a high degree of security under the state treaty of 1955. Is it inconceivable that something similar might be established for the Ukraine? When I expressed such thoughts in the foreign office, my officials said "there, there" and recommended a quiet nap. Certainly, these are amateur notions. But we do need to be ingenious in thinking through these things to find real-istic answers.

Because of the existence around it of the states of the former Soviet Union, Russia expects some re- cognition of the notion of a sphere of influence. As a Tory I am not shocked. Spheres of influence exist; they will not be eliminated by resolutions from this or that body. Influence needs to be exerted-whether by Russia, the US or anyone else-in a way which is compatible with international law and the resolutions of the Security Council and the United Nations Charter. It is possible to reconcile these things. We should keep these basic principles in our minds and not forget them under pressure. Living with the new Russia is going to be an art. But it is an art we can master.