Bad News from Russia

December 14, 1993

The unexpectedly heavy backlash against Russia's democratic reforms and free-market policies is worrisome news. Instead of having a more cooperative parliament, President Boris N. Yeltsin now will have to deal with a substantial number of legislators from extreme right and left who have nothing but scorn for pluralistic democracy and efforts to dismantle the Soviet-era centralized economy.

The strong showing of Vladimir Zhirinovsky ultra-nationalists produced instant jitters throughout Europe. This is understandable. The 47-year-old lawyer, after all, is on record as a wild-eyed expansionist. He wants Russia to retake republics which left the empire after the Soviet Union's collapse. He wants to annex Finland and Poland. He also wants to cleanse Russia from foreign influences, a stand that could threaten that polyglot nation with hate and ethnic strife it can ill afford.

The rise of Russian ultra-nationalism is a tragedy because similar outbreaks elsewhere in the former Soviet Union have meant senseless fratricide and bloodshed. The only dubious silver lining in this development is Mr. Zhirinovsky hunger for power. He wants to be the next Russian president and therefore may have to moderate his stands until the elections scheduled for 1996.

Nevertheless, in addition to discredited communists, President Yeltsin now has to keep a wary eye on ruthless extremists on the right. To keep this new enemy at bay he may have to assume a less flexible stand in cooperation with the West. This means less Russian cooperation in efforts to dismantle the legacy of the Cold War and active hostility toward any attempts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand its membership to include former Soviet satellites.

In domestic affairs as well, Mr. Yeltsin is likely to harden his line. To enable continued privatization, he may have to adopt a harsher tone on a variety of issues. Ethnic questions -- such as the treatment of Russians in now-independent nearby states -- will be particularly sensitive.

Mr. Yeltsin has largely only himself to blame for his predicament. Fearful that his constitution might be defeated, he refrained from campaigning actively or identifying with parties consisting of his progressive supporters. As democrats squabbled, Mr. Zhirinovsky simplistic demagoguery offered an appealing alternative as he promised to return Russia to its pre-revolutionary greatness.

The interests of the U.S. demand continued support for Mr. Yeltsin and leaders in other republics with nuclear arsenals who are committed to decommissioning them. Sunday's election results tell us that time for an orderly dismantling of deadly Cold War arsenals may be running out.

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