Narrowing choices Russian dilemma: After hostage fiasco, the West may have no favorite in presidential vote.

January 21, 1996

THESE ARE TROUBLING days in Russia. Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in just five months, but the future of post-communist reforms is in doubt.

There is no return to the centralized state economy, which was so thoroughly discredited under seven decades of communism. Politically, though, increasing numbers of Russians seem to be ready to say goodbye to the chaotic democratic experience that has been conducted under President Boris N. Yeltsin. Instead, the talk in Moscow is again about adopting the 1980s "Chilean model" of combining a free-wheeling economy with an authoritarian political system.

Mr. Yeltsin's gamble in using brute force in the Chechen hostage crisis backfired. Despite all his bombast to the contrary, the truth is that elite Russian forces commanded by the president's cronies made a mess of an admittedly nasty situation. Instead of sending the Chechnyan rebels a clear message that terrorism does not pay, Mr. Yeltsin has shown that the Kremlin cannot easily defuse terrorism.

More ominously, the hijacking of a Turkish ferry by Chechen sympathizers suggests all kinds of copycats may want to make a mockery of Russian impotence.

All this is bad news to the Western governments. Though they may not be enamored of the erratic Mr. Yeltsin, he is at least predictable and committed to democratic reforms. If he decides to run for re-election, his chances are receding. Mr. Yeltsin's recent embrace of hard-liners has also hurt Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. In contrast, the hopes of retired Gen. Alexander Lebed appear stronger than ever, especially if his conservative supporters form an alliance with neo-communists.

Almost anything can happen in five months in Russia. But Western governments, particularly the United States, ought to prepare themselves for the possibility that neo-communists will gain power in Russia just as they have done in recent months in a number of former Soviet fiefdoms, including Poland.

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