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‘Containment’ time warp sours hopes that Yeltsin spawned

by Roger Pulvers

Nearly 60 years ago, in July 1947, American diplomat George Kennan published what was to become the single most influential article in modern American diplomatic history.

Writing in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, and signing his piece anonymously with an “X,” Kennan, who had been posted to the USSR before, during and after World War II, stated that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

The word picked up from this by American policymakers was “containment.”

Containment of Russia became the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy from the era of President Harry S Truman (1945-53) and his Secretary of State George Marshall all the way down to the current incumbent, George W. Bush, and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

If today the Unites States appears to be on the brink of a new Cold War with Russia, it is thanks to the present U.S. administration being caught in the time warp of containment, with Ms. Rice playing the Pentagon cheerleader, shouting, “Push ‘em back, push ‘em back — way back!”

President Vladimir Putin’s Russia of 2007 is, in myriad ways, a different country from the Soviet Union of the Cold War era, and an event last month brought into perspective the enormous changes the country has undergone, especially in the last decade and a half.

That event was the death, on April 23, of Russia’s first democratically elected president, Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin. Funerals of political leaders, particularly in countries with comparatively arcane political systems like Russia’s, provide opportunities to peek inside an inner chamber or two and see who’s pouring the drinks for whom.

Modest oak coffin

The May issue of the international edition of the influential Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty provided just such a peek. The article about Yeltsin’s funeral, written by correspondent Vyacheslav Kostikov, went into some detail, from a description of the deceased’s modest oak coffin to the brand of vodka served there. (Vodka, it seems, was only served after the arrival of President Putin, and the bottles bore the label “Tsarskaya” — meaning, “Tsar’s Own.”)

The article was accompanied by a list of foreign VIPs in attendance. They included the leaders of all surrounding republics except Moldova, former U.S. presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and, among others, John Major from the United Kingdom and Giulio Andreotti from Italy.

Argumenty i Fakty notes that “representatives of China, India and Japan did not take part in the ceremonies.” Maybe they had enough “Tsar’s Own” in the past.

In the Soviet era, Kremlinologists had a rare field day analyzing who was pouring the vodka for whom at such funerals. But this particular event simply didn’t fall into the category of the “politically significant.” It comes as quite a shock, actually, to realize that so many present world leaders did a “no show” at Yeltsin’s funeral. Wasn’t it significant enough that he had defied Soviet power by climbing, not without difficulty, onto the top of a tank? When he quit the Communist Party and walked out on the 19th Party Congress, it was only veteran film and stage actor Kirill Lavrov (who died just four days after Yeltsin) who went up to him and shook his hand.

Here was a true iconoclastic hero and a man elected fair and square! Could George Bush Snr. claim as much for George Bush Jnr.?

What funerals like this illustrate best, however, is not how those countries sending, or not sending, delegates view the dearly departed — but how they are judging the not-so-dearly anointed. Yeltsin’s funeral was, in a word, an international snub of Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin’s long term in office, from June 1991 until the end of 1999, was a mitigated disaster, mitigated by a new sense of freedom of speech and action in Russia and the even newer freedom for those who wished to leave the country. But his freewheeling approach to the political economy also opened the door for self-styled oligarchs to gain enormous wealth, and for the old, corrupt nomenklatura (Communist Party bureaucratic elite) to, now legally, reconsolidate their power. Recent brutal Russian deeds, such as the murders of Russian journalists and critics, are attributable as much to the unscrupulous nomenklatura thugs who became all powerful under Yeltsin as to the failure, willingly or not, of President Putin to control his former buddies in the Ministry of Dirty Tricks.

Millions bankrupted

Yeltsin’s regime was marked by an uncontrollable inflation that all-but bankrupted millions of public servants, teachers and similar salaried workers, as well as by a giveaway of Russia’s most precious mineral and fuel resources to a handful of entrepreneurs. Foreign investors loved Yeltsin almost as much as big domestic ones. They, too, stood to profit grandly from his reforms. The IMF was another supporter — or, more correctly, propper-upper — of Yeltsin for this very reason.

In the more than seven years since Putin was designated by Yeltsin as his successor, the Russian government has, largely through devious means, wrested control of the country’s resource wealth from private hands. And again their hand has been strengthened from the outside — this time unwittingly by President Bush. Thanks to his Middle East policies, the price of oil has risen dramatically, pouring billions of extra dollars into Russian — as well as Iranian and Venezuelan — coffers. There’s no true friend like an erratic enemy.

Amid these wily maneuverings, we come back to George Kennan and the policy of containment that the present American administration is openly pursuing. Providing millions of dollars to surround Russia with unfriendly regimes, and now proposing to station missiles and radar systems on Polish and Czech soil, are moves indicative of this. Is there so much nostalgia for the Cold War in Washington that they’ll do anything to revive it?

Kennan, who died in 2005 at age 101, long claimed that his suggestions had been misinterpreted and used by reactionary forces in the U.S. for their own vainglorious purposes. In his later years, he became a foe of containment and confrontation, urging his country to stop hypocritically preaching to the world and start engaging with Russia.

Democracy, however fledgling, however flawed, has now come to Russia. Policymakers in the U.S., Europe and Asia should ask themselves: Do they want it to be dead and buried with Boris Yeltsin — or encouraged and nurtured for his successors?