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Wall Street Journal Europe Friday-Saturday 24-25 September 1999 p.6

Byzantine Russia Takes After Ottomans

By Michael A. Reynolds
Mr. Reynolds is a Fulbright scholar from the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
"Anarchy is the messenger of collapse," wrote Sevket Sureyya Aydemir, a chronicler of the fall of the Ottoman Empire earlier this century. Observers of modern-day Russia would be well advised to ponder his words, for it is the breakdown of the state that underlies so many of Russia's problems, from the prominence of the mafia to civil war in Dagestan.

For many, it is inconceivable that the home of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, a land that under Tsars and commissars made the world shudder in fear of its might, could terminally implode. But today's crumbling Russian Federation, the rump state of the Russian and the Soviet empires, bears an eerie
resemblance to the Ottoman one in its last days.

Like Russia, the Ottoman Empire stood astride Europe and Asia. In its heyday, its neighbors, east and west, quaked in fear of its military machine. Less well known among the empire's foes but equally impressive were Ottoman achievements in arts, culture, music, and architecture. For some time, the Empire's political order permitted the flowering of a world civilization as colorful as it was mighty.

That political order, however, rested on a relatively rigid blend of Sunni Islam and Turkish customary law. Efforts to preserve this ideology inhibited innovation, leaving the empire vulnerable. The Ottoman's consequent loss of military superiority and a string of battlefield defeats beginning in the 18th century shook the elite's faith in its own system.

Later, the combined forces of the industrial revolution and a globalizing market overturned the economic order and upset relations between outmoded state institutions and the modernizing economy. The tax and legal systems fell into disorder. At the same time, state servants turned from serving the state interest to using the state to serve their own, private interest. As state institutions decayed throughout the Ottoman Empire, public order broke down, armed gangs and bandits emerged, and rebellions began to erupt.

A similar withering of the state is underway in Russia. Events in the North Caucasus are only the most glaring evidence. There, the tiny secessionist republic of Chechnya defeated the Russian Army in 1996 after 21 months of intense fighting. Since that stunning defeat, the Russian military has grown only weaker. Today, renegade forces from Chechnya challenge the cash starved and often food starved Russian forces' now struggling to control the neighboring republic of Dagestan. As Moscow's grip weakens, armed conflict threatens to erupt in the nearby Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia as well.

Among Russia's myriad problems, its economic woes are the most publicized. Although inveterate optimists persist in heralding small success stories as the seeds of future economic recovery, thereby unwittingly suggesting that the existence of any economic activity at all is near miraculous, the fact is that the basic elements of order necessary for sustained economic growth continue to decay. The banking system is in shambles. And the police, rather than fighting criminals, increasingly compete with them for extortion and racketeering profits. Desperate Russians reportedly have begun even to commit murder for a few sacks of homegrown potatoes.

It is the inability of the state to provide fundamental order that has fostered the astounding boom in organized crime. Its growth has been so spectacular that, according to former CIA director James Woolsey among others, it is no longer possible to separate the state from the mafia. Significantly, the one thing the Russian state does seem to do well is to facilitate capital flight. Estimates of the amount of money to have left Russia over the past seven years range from $200 to $500 billion. Most of this money was earned from the unimaginative plundering of Russia's tremendous natural resources.

Those who do not live there commonly dismiss Russia's problems as bumps on the road to a better, free market future. However, those who do live there seem to think differently. In the first six months of this year alone, nearly 400,000 Russians emigrated from their country.

The curious adoption by Western analysts of a central tenet of Marxism--the belief that economics determine politics-has led many naively to trumpet the wrecking of the Russian state as a positive achievement. The main thing is to destroy the centralized economy, they say, and after that a free market will emerge. It will evolve from primitive to complex, and along the way it inevitably will nourish the establishment of a liberal political system, simply because that is what an advanced economy requires.

Such pollyannish thinking is reminiscent of the optimism that accompanied attempts to save the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman reform effort culminated in the enthusiastic embrace of a liberal constitution and
the formal rejection of the old order in 1908. Confident that this new start meant the salvation of the Ottoman state, one prominent reformer named Enver Pasha declared, "We have cured the Sick Man!" But words cannot solve problems of governance. And the empire collapsed fifteen years later.

Russia's disarray is similar, as are its confused attempts at reform. One reason for this is the absence of mass political mobilization in the country. Some observers point to the lack of a protest movement as a hopeful sign, wrongly assuming ssuming that it reflects a patient commitment to see through liberal reforms. In reality, it reflects the political "atomization" of society.  In the Soviet Union, the Communist
Party dominated by breaking down the traditional social, professional and civ=FEc bonds that allow citiznes to organize politically in more open nations.

These bonds have yet to be restored. And the growth of anarchy has failed to elicit much in the way of protest (whereas in France, for example, modest proposals to trim the welfare state spark nationwide strikes). Impoverished, tired, sick, cynical and distrustful of their leaders, their political associations and their neighbors, the Russian people have neither the resources nor inclination to join together to defend their interests against a corrupt state and its mafia partners.

Other than the Communists, there is still no political party with anything resembling a nationwide, grass roots organization. The parties remain the playthings of Moscow-based politicians. And as Russia's
central institutions deteriorate, the regions have necessarily grown more assertive, thereby weakening the federal state even further.

If the people cannot goad the state to restore public order, will Russia's elite?  Many believe that Russia's misnamed "Robber Barons" eventually will. This is a great mistake. Unlike the original American Robber Barons, who created wealth as they accumulated it, Russia's elite has by and large stolen its wealth, and have little interest in creating the conditions conducive to nationwide wealth creation. Nor, with their private militias, do they have any need for a state or legal system to preserve public order and protect private property. The present order has served them well.

The decline of today's Muscovite state began in 1980, when the first sustained homegrown opposition to communism emerged in Poland. Observers expected that the Russian Federation's rejection of communism and its embrace of a liberal order in 1991 would halt that decline. Unfortunately,
Russia's reforms now look more like the Ottoman reforms of 1908--markers on the road to the end.

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