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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
The new world order
Moscow's Red Square
Censorship in Soviet Moscow was strict
By BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall

Fifteen years ago in Moscow, a British businessman who was trying to run a small joint venture showed me how every night he had to lock up his photocopying machine. Such were the rules of the Soviet censor.

The copier was on its own in a room which was specially reinforced from floor to ceiling with iron bars.

Every evening a Soviet security official would arrive to padlock the bars shut and seal them with wax, and every morning he'd check the seal had not been tampered with.

Nowadays in Russia, not only do copying machines abound, so do mobile phones and satellite dishes for worldwide TV access.

Many changes can be attributed to Gorbachev's "perestroika" revolution
And across their country's vast steppes and forests, ordinary Russians communicate with the world via fax machines and computer laptops, playing chess with American grandmothers, or swapping notes with fellow teenagers in Asia and Latin America in global internet chat rooms.

Gone are the days when Soviet dissidents used to type furtively into the night through several pages of precious carbon paper, the only way to reproduce in multiple copies some banned poem or short story.

Brave new world

We live in a new world of freer access, more extensive democracy and more porous borders.

But how far is that because the Cold War ended, the Soviet coup leaders failed and communism collapsed, and how far is it because the information technology revolution was coming anyway and the decrepit old dragon of Soviet totalitarianism was destined for extinction?

Some of the global changes that have come about can indeed be traced back to Mr Gorbachev's "perestroika" revolution.

How could we possibly imagine a world where the USA and the USSR did not compete for global domination?

I remember a Soviet deputy foreign minister telling me in 1988 that not only that the USSR was pulling its troops out of Afghanistan, but that the Soviet Union intended to abandon its client states in Africa and Central America.

"Angola? Ethopia? They can sort out their own problems," he told me.

"Is this on the record?" I asked.

"Of course it is. It's our New Political Thinking," he replied - referring to the Soviet name for the general reorientation in foreign policy that Mikhail Gorbachev and his foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze were in the process of introducing.

I didn't believe him, and nor, I reckon, did many Western analysts for a year or two. How could we possibly imagine a world where the USA and the USSR did not compete for global domination?

No longer divided?

In security terms it is true. The result of Mr Gorbachev's revolution and the Soviet collapse that followed have been the end of a world divided in two ideologically - a world so fraught with tension that a chance confrontation over exposed spies or a downed airliner might spiral into nuclear war and exterminate the lot of us.

Patriot anti-missile system
Missile defence has taken over as the main talking point
Europe is no longer divided into East and West. Nor is the rest of the world.

The end of the Cold War meant no more surrogate regional conflicts, like those in Angola, Afghanistan or Nicaragua, where each side was financed, armed and goaded stealthily and relentlessly by the two superpowers.

But let's pause and consider what we're left with. Wars continue to wreck Angola and Afghanistan. And in some ways they are even more terrible, because these days the rest of the world pays less attention, for the quarrel is internal, not global.

Europe may be no longer divided, but 10 years of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the simmering wars that still make the Caucasus a tinderbox have taught us that once the lid of Communist orthodoxy is lifted, age-old resentments, harboured in silence and fuelled by economic deprivation, will raise their heads again.

The US and Russia continue to talk about further reducing their nuclear stocks.

The more technologically advanced our societies become, the more likely it is that the danger which will bring our comfortable world to a halt is some deceptively simple weapon

But we've now learnt that all you need to build a potentially devastating nuclear bomb is a small portion of nuclear material smuggled out of some not very secure facility, a bright PhD student who needs the cash and a rogue state or terrorist ruthless enough to use it.

And why worry only about nuclear bombs? As we all know from the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground, the occasional madman in the United States who sends anthrax samples through the post just for the hell of it, and those e-mail viruses that with increasing regularity threaten to jinx our computer systems - it is no longer military superiority that signals where the real threat may come from.

The more technologically advanced our societies become, the more likely it is that the danger which will bring our comfortable world to a halt is some deceptively simple weapon - a computer virus, say, that disables the program that runs the Pentagon's air conditioning system.

Let's face it, porous borders, real and virtual, have made us all a lot more vulnerable.

New challenges

Fifteen years ago, governments in Western Europe denounced the Soviet Union for depriving its citizens of the right to travel freely. These days those same Western governments worry about how to keep out so called bogus asylum seekers from former Soviet republics.

Anti-globalisation protesters in Genoa
Recent protests have been against a new 'enemy' - powerful multinationals
And while Russian and Western policemen and even secret security services work in tandem where they once opposed each other, their new common enemy are those other shadowy international collaborators, the powerful crime syndicates who span the globe with their trade in illegal drugs, arms and even the smuggling of people and body parts.

How easy to paint a gloomy picture. But let's not forget what has been won. The democratic right to chose your politicians and not be afraid to speak your mind to a stranger is a precious commodity.

Yes, too many parts of the world are still war zones, still run by dictatorial governments who repress their people.

Yes, for many - including those protesters who caused such havoc in Genoa this summer and at earlier international summits - there is a new troubling enemy in the shape of trans-national corporations who are not accountable to anybody.

But some things have changed for the better. The same information revolution that may or may not have forced the Soviet Government to rethink its stultifying repression of its people is a powerful tool.

Perhaps we are only just beginning to understand how powerful it is. Already politicians the world over- including the old Soviet Union - are realising the importance of responding to public opinion.

Campaigns that start small at grassroots level these days grow to global proportions.

Look at the pressure on drugs companies to provide cheap medicines to developing countries. Look at the success of the campaign to get richer countries to "drop the debt" for the world's poorest nations.

No wonder the Soviet Government went on trying to keep its photocopying machines under lock and key as long as possible.

Once you let the information genie out of the bottle, you'll never get it back in again.

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