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Pondering a post-Cold War meeting of the minds

March 20, 1997
Web posted at: 10:13 p.m. EST (0313 GMT)

Essay by Correspondent Garrick Utley

NEW YORK (CNN) -- As Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton meet in Finland this week to discuss NATO expansion plans, there is a noticeable lack of thrall among Americans.

Earlier summits promised great things, and the world turned its head to watch. There was Cold War tension: Kennedy went head-to-head with Khrushchev; Nixon faced off with Brezhnev. Later, viewers followed the summit between Gorbachev and Reagan with excitement and hope, and we all learned how to pronounce "perestroika."

Russia is no longer the core of the "evil empire," no longer a military threat. Yet the meeting between Bill and Boris, as they call each other, is still compelling.

Russia a gamble on two counts

True, it is no longer a bastion of Communism. What it is, still, is a high-stakes gamble. Democracy now operates on the surface. Western nations are gambling that it will take root and provide stability.

Russia still has a ways to go on this count: Not everyone in Russia, or even among the democratically elected members of its Parliament, observes the code of conduct of the democratic process.

The even bigger gamble is making capitalists out of former communists. Some Russians have learned the game quickly, and grown fabulously wealthy, often through blatant corruption and violent, uncontrolled crime.

No wonder, then, that most Russians have grown angry or apathetic as they have lost out, as others have rolled the dice of economic reform.

Size commands world's attention

Despite Russia's military weakness, despite its economic poverty, it still has the power to command the world's attention because of the one thing it cannot lose: its enormous size.

In fact Russia has always been a concern, simply because of its size and its spread. Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville's first edition of "Democracy in America," published in 1841, showed Russia's reach. On the book's inside cover was a map of 1841 America. The United States extended to the Mississippi River. The entire west was called Mexico. And up in the far northwest, where Alaska is now, was -- would you believe it? -- Russian America.

Today, it is not geography that brings the countries and their leaders together, but mutual interest, and yes, even dependence.

Boris Yeltsin depends on Bill Clinton and the West for financial backing and political support. Bill Clinton and other leaders depend on Yeltsin and his government to keep Russia stable and peaceful. Both sides know their history.

At the end of his book Tocqueville wrote that two great nations were emerging in the world -- Russia and the United States. "Their courses are not the same," he wrote, "yet each of them seems to be marked by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."

Despite its problems, Russia, today, still has the potential to sway destiny.


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