HERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN RUSSIA last week: There almost was war with Latvia. This, after two Russian generals were arrested near Riga by a local official and held at gunpoint in the woods; the Russians scrambled their jets but cooled off when the Latvians released the generals and fired the official. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, the ruble was plummeting again--in anticipation of renewed efforts by the government to waste money on the state's antediluvian industrial sector. The new Parliament met chaotically and nearly voted a noisy nationalist ex-weight-lifting champion as its speaker; happily, a communist carried the day instead. Vladimir Zhirinovsky Russia's Nazi bouffe and everyone's favorite worst-case scenario, shouted from the podium: "Every candidate for speaker must be sent to a psychiatric hospital!" Oh, and Bill Clinton arrived in town for a summit meeting.
This last seemed no big deal to most Russians. Clinton's arrival wasn't even front-page news for Moskovsky Komsomolets, the most popular paper in Moscow. The paper's second-day story was more prominent but fixed on the president's "mind-boggling suit" and "expensive socks." It also noted that the ice on the sidewalk in front of the Ostankino television station was cleared in anticipation of Clinton's arrival--a matter of no small interest to Muscovites, who are furious that most streets are left treacherous by the current government. "People aren't very interested in the summit. They don't believe these politicians will do much to change their lives," said Derk Sauer, publisher of the Moscow Times--which reported that women on line in the sausage store Clinton visited refused to give up their places in order to shake the president's hand. "Where's the money? Where's the aid?" demanded Zhirinovsky, a genius when it comes to expressing the average Russian's darkest suspicions and wounded pride. "We don't need Clinton."
It should come as no surprise that the suspicions are very dark these days, and the pride is wounded terribly Russians are worldclass pessimists even when life is tolerable--it rarely gets much better than tolerable--which makes Bill Clinton's native optimism all the more jarring. One wonders what those women on the sausage line made of the blinding sunniness in Clinton's speech at Ostankino, especially the part where he said that every few generations, 'All great nations must stop and think about where they are in time...They must imagine their future in a new way." Say what? A popular Russian conceit-smart people don't actually believe this, but they say it--is that nothing much has changed in a thousand years, that Russia is eternal.
Smart people in the West sometimes say it, too. Clearly, this is a president who drives the bishops of the American foreign-policy priesthood nuts. All this touchy-feely rhetoric and sax-playing, all these fuzzy-wuzzy policy initiatives without ground rules or timetables. all this hopefulness. "In the 21st century," the president said in Prague, "can anyone seriously believe that we will define greatness by whether one country can physically occupy another?...The future must be different from the past."
In The New York Times last week, speaking for the foreign-policy episcopacy William Safire argued that his world view prohibited him from thinking the future would be very different--he was certain the president and Russia specialist Strobe Talbott were making a terrible mistake by not pushing for the fastest possible inclusion of the more plausible Eastern European countries into NATO. Clinton has proposed a vague association called "Partnership for Peace" that would become less vague--indeed, it could quickly incorporate the Eastern Europeans--if Russia turns ugly. Clinton says that "drawing a new line across Europe" may foreclose a happy ending in Russia and "could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of future confrontation."
But it isn't easy to argue with Safire. Russia is a mess. Its attempts to build a market economy are stunted, mafia-ridden; its public life is brute vaudeville. Even the most enlightened Russians have difficulty believing that Ukraine or Belarus is a separate country (they have a point); they miss their empire, and the respect it conferred. The future may not belong to Zhirinovsky, but it most certainly will be dominated by leaden apparatchiks like Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. It would be folly to argue sunshine in such circumstances, but for one thing: the world has changed irrevocably. It's conceivable that the seductive comforts of a global economy--and the ability of information to pass through even iron curtains--will make it impossible for monolithic, paranoid dictatorships to survive in the future. Russia may be forced to trade rather than conquer (or hunker down)--it certainly won't have the money to raise a conquering army if it doesn't. In fact, with its well-educated and severely underpaid work force, Russia may be in a unique position to prosper if it ever gets its act together. "We believe political man is evolving," says a source close to Clinton. There will always be local bullies like Serbia, but the need to cultivate markets will restrain the impulse toward large-scale aggression.
This is not an entirely convincing argument. It is optimistic. We are used to equating pessimism with realism, especially when the game is geopolitical. But we've just come through a time when the wildest optimists proved insufficiently upbeat--the Soviet Union collapsed, Eastern Europe was liberated, democracy spread through South America, capitalism through Asia. A swing in the other direction is now in the offing, but it would be a mistake to assume it will be symmetrical. A cautious skepticism is appropriate; preventive-insurance policies are wise. But reflexive pessimism is not just wrong--it's as potentially dangerous as undifferentiated optimism is inevitably assumed to be.