Column: Given a chance, Russia reverts to its old secrecy

As I watched the Russian government respond over the past week or so to the terrible nuclear submarine tragedy that killed 118 young sailors, I recalled several strange encounters with Soviet diplomats during my U.S. Foreign Service career.

Even though the Soviet Union collapsed when the Cold War ended, not that much has changed.

In the bad old days, the Soviet government distrusted everyone including foreigners and its own citizens. And in the post-Cold War world, Russian leaders apparently still value military secrecy above saving lives. I think their priorities are seriously out of whack.

My old friend, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, made my point when she wrote that the Russian government's reaction to the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in the cold and remote Barents Sea was first that it was "a military disaster and secondarily, a human one."

And when Russian President Vladimir Putin finally emerged from his vacation at an opulent Black Sea resort five days after the accident, he asked his military commanders about possible environmental damage before he asked whether there were any survivors. "It is not impossible that some mistakes were made," said Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev in the understatement of the year. Putin, Sergeyev and others lied early and often as they sought to deflect blame for the tragedy.

Ms. Geyer wrote that it took the "new" Russian government nearly a week to reveal how many young sailors were trapped in their watery grave, to inform the Russian public of the names of the victims, and to ask for help from "the immensely more humane and technologically adept outside world." That's a serious indictment of Putin and his government, but they earned it. For Ms. Geyer, "the ominous plight of the Kursk is already becoming a metaphor for a people trapped in a deep sea of hopelessness and despair."

Moreover, "secrecy and paranoia of the past permeate the minds of supposedly modern leaders ...." That's the most worrisome aspect of the Kursk disaster - that Putin reacted exactly the way his Communist predecessors would have responded 10 or 12 years ago. Which isn't all that surprising when we remember that Putin was a KGB spy for nearly 20 years during the Cold War. So despite everything the Clinton administration has been telling us about the new, improved Russia, it behaves very much like the old Soviet Union when the chips are down.

During my diplomatic career, I had many unplanned encounters with Soviet envoys. There was the time in Colombia in the mid-1970s when I engaged our deputy ambassador, a Kennedy Democrat from Massachusetts, in a public debate over federal-state relations in the U.S. A Soviet diplomat who was in the audience came up to me afterwards and offered to drive me home.

On the way, he asked me a number of questions about my background and my work at the American Embassy in Bogota. But when we reached my home and I invited him inside to continue the discussion he begged off, explaining that he needed specific permission from Moscow in order to continue the discussion. I immediately reported the incident to my "spooky" friends in the embassy.

A few months later, the same Russian diplomat and I attended an international basketball tournament in Bogota; the Soviet Union was represented by its Olympic team and the U.S. by a group of small college all-stars. After the young American team was defeated by the older and more experienced Soviets, I told "Ivan" that we had lost the game on purpose in order to ingratiate ourselves with the Colombians. He dutifully reported my "intelligence information" to Moscow. That's when I became a "reliable source."

And finally, there was the time about 10 years ago in Caracas, Venezuela, when I suggested to our ambassador, a fervently anti-Communist Cuban-American named Otto Juan Reich, that we show the Soviets some dramatic "glasnost" videotape of the first Washington meeting between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.

Ambassador Reich reluctantly agreed to my scheme and we spent a pleasant evening watching CIA and KGB spies try to recruit each other over scotch and vodka cocktails, respectively. That was my modest contribution to the end of the Cold War.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Michael Dobbs, who covered a failed coup attempt by hard-line Communists in 1991, recently returned to Moscow only to discover that nascent forms of capitalism and democracy have brought ordinary Russians nothing but "greed, corruption and nostalgia."

A human rights activist told Dobbs that today's Russia is like "a rather unusual family (where) you have the market economy as the mother, and the Communist-style management system as the father. The only offspring you will get from that kind of marriage is a corrupt and criminalized state."

You won't be pleased to learn that the U.S. government sent $5.45 billion of our tax money to that criminal state between 1992 and 1998 and the International Monetary Fund - to which the U.S. is the largest single source of funds - contributed $15.6 billion. In short, we're doing more than our fair share to finance the Russian kleptocracy.

So the more things change in the former Soviet Union, the more they stay the same. Georgie Anne Geyer wrote that the Kursk disaster shows that the Russian public is more anti-government than ever and that the Putin government "hasn't gone nearly so far as many outsiders had hoped in bringing a new mentality to bear on post-Cold War Russia." This will be a major foreign affairs challenge facing the new American president when he takes office next January.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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