Russia's Choice

A POEM written during Russia's 1905 political-reform period speaks of a sad policeman. There is a new policy, and he cannot repress those he repressed before. Do not worry, the poem assures the policeman: The old way of doing things will return soon enough.

And it did. Those first buds of democracy were crushed by poor leadership and the collapse of the system, caused by World War I, that led to the Bolshevik coup d'etat.

Reform in Russia historically seems to follow a pattern of several steps forward, several sideways, then several backwards. Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to reform communism foundered when he began backtracking on economic and political reforms and resorted to force in Lithuania.

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History never really repeats itself exactly. The Russia of today is not the Russia of 1917 or even 1991. But the Russian people, enduring wrenching political, economic, and social changes and facing a Chechen war with no end in sight, stand again at a crossroads. Will they continue down a road that holds out the hope of democracy, economic improvement, and engagement with the world? Or will they return to a dead-end tradition of authoritarian and arbitrary rule, economic stagnation, chauvinistic imperialism, and stubborn isolationism?

The signs are disturbing. Boris Yeltsin, who can read election results as well as the next politician, got the message from recent parliamentary elections that the public is upset with his government. So he's turfed out the liberal democrats in his inner circle - people like Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev - and replaced them with people close to his security chief, Alexander Korzhakov, a KGB veteran not known for his commitment to democracy. Yeltsin's new chief of staff is Nikolai Yegorov, the man who thought using military force against the Chechens was a good idea.

The changes have thrown into grave doubt Yeltsin's attachment to economic reform - and a multibillion-dollar International Monetary Fund loan.

Still, all is not lost. Russia's constitution required that Mr. Kozyrev resign as foreign minister if he wanted to accept the parliamentary seat he had been elected to. Perhaps new Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov can rally more domestic support for Russian engagement with the West than his unpopular predecessor. And Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has come to be seen as a pro-reform centrist, was not so regarded by the West when first appointed.

The run-up to the June presidential elections, with Yeltsin as a probable candidate, bears close attention. The stakes are high. Preelection maneuvering is not encouraging. But let's not write off Russia just yet.

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