The Foreign Service Journal, April 2022

22 APRIL 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL SPEAKING OUT No One Was Listening: Russia, 1992 BY KR I ST I N K . LOKEN Kristin K. Loken is a retired FSO who served with USAID in Central America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and, for a short time, Russia. She currently resides by the Potomac River in Falling Waters, West Virginia. A s the crisis over Russia’s relationship with Ukraine unfolded in early 2022, I have thought often of my experiences working in Russia in 1992 and 1993. I was a USAID FSO involved in the planning for the U.S. democracy program for Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolu- tion. I submit that the actions we took at the end of the Cold War set the stage for the problems we have today. That experience pointed to the vital importance—then and today—of certain basic tenets of successful diplomatic prac- tice that were so well explicated by George Krol in his article about the lessons he learned during the collapse of the Soviet Union ( “Practical Lessons for Today’s For- eign Service,” December 2021 FSJ ). Perhaps it’s best to set the scene first by talking about that day in 1991 when we learned the Soviet Union had collapsed. That day I saw men running through the halls of the State Department gleefully yelling, “We won the Cold War!” and “We’re number one!” That’s where the arrogance really took hold. Then came “shock therapy”: moving Russia from a communist dictatorship to a free-market democracy, overnight. As these plans were drawn up in Wash- ington, D.C., I was working a temporary duty assignment on the U.S. democracy program in Moscow. I saw the devasta- tion, the pain, the hunger in the streets of Moscow as people tried to hold on through the transition. Russia was in deep depression and asking for American assis- tance. The Russian people I met wanted a new relationship with the United States and seemed prepared to welcome us as helpmates, if not yet as friends. In the planning meetings back in Washington, I raised my hand a few times to encourage a slower pace. It seemed to me we might get better outcomes by pushing for a more gradual move from Russian communism to American-style free-market capitalism, maybe using a middle step of coopera- tives. Every time I mentioned this idea, I was shut down immediately. “Get the pain over quickly,” they said. “Let’s not suggest midterm solutions like cooperatives that have no place in the final outcome.” Humanitarian assis- tance just to help the Russian people get through the transition without starving to death would only be available as long as Russia complied with “shock therapy.” Not surprisingly, shock therapy was a colossal failure. Neither free-market capitalism nor democracy took hold. Only corruption and organized crime blossomed. I have always felt we had a real opportunity at this juncture to make a friend of Russia, an opportunity we threw away. We had our boot to their neck when they were down. There wasn’t much else Russia could have done, but I’ve always felt there was plenty the U.S. could have done—if we had followed Ambassador Krol’s six tips for successful diplomacy. 1) Use the language . One of the first projects of our early Russia program was to make five copies of the Uniform Commercial Code of the United States to distribute to five major judicial centers in Russia. Was no one thinking that Rus- sians speak Russian? That a commercial code, no matter how spectacular, would be useless in English in Russia? Was our expectation that the Russians could just copy (after translation) our laws to use in Russia, where all the sociocultural institutions work very differently? 2) Adapt. Adjust. Be flexible. Be creative. Ideology is not development. What we did in Russia in the early 1990s was attempt to transplant neo- liberal ideology, an idealized version of American democracy and free- market economy, into Russia. What was required was learning from Russians how to work through the transition creatively—in ways new to both Russia and the United States—that would be effective in Russia. We were blinded by our own ideology. 3) Go out and discover. I remember walking all over Moscow, watching a bridal couple at the monument in the park and seeing the red flags waving as small groups of communists paraded through the streets, the slow repainting of the golden onions atop the churches and the artwork in the subway stops.