PARIS -- Until last Wednesday, Russia seemed to have recovered something resembling orderly government under Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, reclaiming an important international role through its intervention in the Yugoslav-NATO crisis.
But internal and external forces have combined to put an end to that, relegating Russia to what may prove a serious internal ordeal. President Boris Yeltsin's dismissal of Mr. Primakov has been reported as a capricious act, but it followed logically from the threat to the president posed by the impeachment process by the Russian parliament, which, ultimately, failed.
The president's other, and less creditable reason, for firing his prime minister was that Mr. Primakov had won considerable public approval for helping achieve economic stability and had become a rival. Mr. Yeltsin abides no rivals.
When Mr. Primakov assumed office last August, Russia was on the edge of financial collapse. Mr. Primakov averted the collapse and has since conveyed to the public, and to the international financial community, an impression of seriousness and responsibility.
Threat to stability
That period is finished. Even if the new prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, proves more than Mr. Yeltsin's pawn, his appointment launches a struggle between the president and the Duma that could last through the summer, and might destroy the Yeltsin government.
The external factors at work are more serious than many may understand. Many Russians see the United States as working through NATO to encircle and isolate Russia. NATO's attack on Serbia added to this perception.
In 1992, when Mr. Yeltsin dissolved not only the Soviet Union, but also the 500-year-old Russian empire, it was possible to believe that a successor arrangement might emerge in the former Soviet states and in Central and Eastern Europe that would resemble Western Europe's reconciliation of former enemy nations. This idea, however, was of no interest to Poland or the Baltic states, for understandable reasons. They wanted the security they saw in NATO membership.
In response, Washington abandoned the assurances concerning NATO expansion that had been given to Moscow before the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Central Europe. It extended NATO to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with other former Warsaw Pact countries expected to follow. It established a special security relationship with the Baltic countries.
Five former Soviet states, most with major oil resources or prospects -- Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan -- have subsequently established what amounts to an informal anti-Russian association, with U.S. approval. Their leaders were all invited to Washington for NATO's gloomy 50th anniversary in April.
In recent years, NATO has expanded to what once was the Soviet western border. Through NATO's Partnership for Peace, it seems to Russians now to be encircling their country in the southwest and south.
Mr. Yeltsin's Communist enemies in the Duma and the Russian nationalists make much of this. Mr. Yeltsin's reaction has been a realistic one. He has ignored what others saw as provocation and tried to maintain a serious relationship with Washington. One of the assets Russia had in dealing with Washington was its privileged relationship with Serbia.
That has become an important asset since the war began. When the NATO bombing campaign failed to produce the Serbian capitulation Washington had expected, the Western governments asked Russia to help extricate them from an unpleasant situation.
But they turned to a shell of a government. Mr. Yeltsin insists that the diplomatic show goes on, but internal crisis weakens Russia in dealing with NATO and Belgrade. Russia's influence in Yugoslavia depends on the Yugoslavs' belief in Russian power.
It is extremely bad news that Russia is preoccupied by internal struggle and is likely to remain so, while its economy resumes a disordered decline, and the government's discredited political authority fades.
NATO's anxious leaders had thought Russia could rescue them, or at least install a dialogue with Belgrade that might lead to peace, not war. Moscow's expected military participation in an eventual agreement was to cover up the damage that has been done to the alliance.
Washington has handled its relationship with Russia very badly, but now it needs Russia. During the past few weeks, it has been counting heavily on Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Primakov. However, Russia's own political dynamic now dominates Moscow. What happens in that city now could worsen Russia's always ambivalent relationship with the West.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/19/99