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NCEW in Russia: Watch your step.


A crisis, a classic, and a cool brew - all of which those on NCEW's Russia trip found difficult to escape during our two-week journey to this vast, complex, fascinating nation. The early June trip coincided with Russian efforts to help NATO find a way to end the Kosovo bombing and culminated as Russian troops boldly raced to take the Pristina airport ahead of NATO peacekeeping forces.

Kosovo permeated conversations at all levels, from those with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. ambassador to Russia James Collins, to those with the deputy directors of disarmament at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with politicians and ordinary citizens. NATO's taking on Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo - Russians are convinced - was aimed not at a bully in Yugoslavia but, like an arrow, to the heart of Russia. And, they warned darkly, it will unleash an arms race that will destabilize the world.

Well, maybe. Watch what they do, said Ambassador Collins at his historic Spaso House residence in Moscow. "There hasn't been a run on the euro. If this country needs capital, they're not going to get it from India."

Collins also imparted his "fat dog test": If things are so bad, how come all the dogs are fat? Big, well-groomed, beautiful dogs are everywhere in Russia.

Those who had visited this country during the Soviet years were stunned by the profound changes wrought in the last decade. That IBM is now housed in the KGB's former headquarters in St. Petersburg is just the smallest sign. It is a country transformed, with all the trappings of any slightly shabby, polluted Western country: profusions of billboards, traffic jams, well-stocked stores, people bustling about. Despite the economic troubles, Russia inexplicably felt like a normal, thriving country.

Yet Russia's problems are immense. Much of the economy remains in a gray twilight of barter outside the reach of laws and the tax collector. The entire tax system is punitive and incoherent, the judicial system weak and not yet committed to the sanctity of contracts. The infrastructure is crumbling, a relic of the shoddy, haphazard, and careless construction of the Soviet years. Take stairs. In building after building, stair steps are uneven. There may be six with a uniform rise and a seventh that is either oddly higher or lower than the others. It's a reminder you must watch your step in Russia.

Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is an almost certain candidate for president next year, spent a controversial $2.4 million on a giant street festival and concert in Red square featuring Placido Domingo to honor Russia's Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin. It was impossible to turn around in Moscow without seeing Pushkin's likeness or lines from his classics. But the air was festive and fun and free.

A recurrent refrain was that the young are different. In fact, from thirtysomething entrepreneurs on down to college students and teenage skateboarders, they are so markedly different in attitude and experience as to perhaps justify the optimism. "They will not go back," said Gorbachev bluntly.

Tanned and relaxed, he soon warmed to his task, which was explaining how his carefully laid out new world order all went so wrong. Clearly hoping to protect his legacy for history, Gorbachev acknowledged, "Yes, we made mistakes." But Yeltsin, reckless Yeltsin, he insisted, has screwed everything up.

The Russians say St. Petersburg is the head, Moscow the heart, and Nizhny Novgorod the "money pocket" of their country. Nizhny is busy vying with other progressive regions in Russia's far-flung hinterlands to transform its local economy. It is simplifying taxes, establishing enterprise zones, and actively incubating thousands of burgeoning small businesses.

The belief is widespread that Russia's future will be built away from Moscow in these regions. St. Petersburg-based Baltika, the largest brewery in Russia and one of the largest in Europe, now distributes remarkably good beer - as we discovered repeatedly - throughout Russia and hopes soon to begin exporting.

Like a high-wire circus performer, this nation seems suspended over an abyss. But it may be easier to move slowly and determinedly forward than to try sliding back now. The consensus even among the disillusioned is the changes are irreversible.

Pushkin gets the last word here, and they are the same words that end his great epic poem, Eugene Onegin: "God grant that you, in this book for recreation, for the daydream, for the heart, for jousts in journals, may find at least a crumb. Upon which, let us part, farewell."

Pat Widder is a member of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board. This article is excerpted from a longer report on NCEW Online at
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Widder, Pat
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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