CRITICS say Boris Yeltsin's state of emergency opens the door for dictatorial powers in Russia. Yet Mr. Yeltsin's April 25 referendum seems a real effort to move Russia toward more democracy. A new constitution defining separation of powers and a new elected parliament would be a significant achievement. President Clinton and other Western leaders should support this outcome, and the man who may bring it about. As Warren Christopher said March 22, "Russia must remain a democracy moving toward a market ec onomy."
Of course, these sentiments reflect an ideal world. There is, in fact, very little understanding of democracy in Russia. What is most striking about the successor states of the former Soviet Union is their lack of unifying liberal and federal ideas. What the immediate political future in Russia actually seems to hold are choices among various forms of competing nationalisms. Some are extreme and militaristic, bent on rebuilding a Russian empire. Others are less so, and will give a nod to some Western con cepts of politics, civility, law, and economics. The struggle in Russia will be between various degrees of these orthodox and liberal ideals. The outcome is far from certain.
The West ought to be warned about the kind of values nationalism can breed - namely, a deeply felt honor in sacrificing for the dominating power of a nation. These values may seem parochial and narrow to the liberal West. But it must be pointed out that some much-touted Western values - a better standard of living, for example - seem shallow to many in the East. The glory and honor of aggression and empire promised by nationalism acts on the minds of people in more powerful ways than calls for "privatiza tion" or "market economics." Nazi Germany offers but one example.
The US and Europe can't watch the Russian drama from the sidelines. This turmoil may seriously test the strength of Western values - rather than being simply a "triumph of democracy." The West may have little overt leverage in Moscow. Russians must finally find their own way. But in coming months, Western leaders must support Western principles in Russia. Mr. Clinton can find ways to support a center-left coalition in Moscow. If the summit takes place, real rewards must be offered for arms treaties such as Start II, for articulated human and minority rights, for the rule of law and the honoring of contracts, and for private enterprise.
Russian nationalism may test the West's conviction in its own ideals. If Sarajevo is a predictor of the West's ability to respond, this is a somber question.