THERE are striking similarities between Russia today and the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Russia is living through an economic crisis, just as Germany did in the 1920s. Adolf Hitler benefited from the misery of a great depression. Russia's economy is still falling; the social price of reform is yet to be paid. Unemployment may rise from 800,000 to 7 million even in a year. This would provide the people and the force for another Russian revolution - this time based on ultra-nationalist and anti-liberal ideas.
Hitler's rise was also helped by the impotent democratic institutions of the Weimar republic. Today's Russian leadership displays a similar inability or perhaps inefficiency in ruling the country. President Boris Yeltsin, elected in 1991 by two-thirds of the Russian population, has lost at least half of his support. Only some 29 percent of the population, in a November opinion poll, would like Mr. Yeltsin to run in the next presidential election. About 65 percent say they disapprove of his handling of the parliament crisis this October.
Weimar Germany was born of the defeat of the German empire in World War I. Russia is emerging from the defeat of the Soviet Union in the cold war and from the fall of its empire. Russia has inherited not only the USSR's seat in the United Nations Security Council and the international treaties signed by Moscow - but frustration and bitterness as well.
Russia alone gained nothing from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It lost lands joined to it by czars dating to Peter the Great. The fall of the USSR left Russians with shattered self-esteem and a feeling of humiliation. A fallen empire syndrome haunts Russia - as it haunted Germany in the '20s.
Finally, Russians now have a charismatic and manipulative leader: Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Having built his success on populist, ultra-nationalist slogans, he does not object to being compared to Hitler. He appeals to those disgusted with current rulers; he works the emotions of his audience, which has grown from 6 million in 1991, when he ran for president, to 18 million today.
Of course there are important differences between Russia and Weimar: Russia lacks the strength and nerve to rebuild its military machine. Memories of the Afghan war - 13,000 casualties - make Russians somewhat war-phobic, at least for now.
Also, unlike the Nazis, Russia's ultra-nationalist slogans are more symbolic than political. They remind one more of the statements of the French extremist Le Pen than those of Hitler. Zhirinovsky lacks an organized party, and does not have any militarized groups to support his bid for power.
But things can change. In December, we have just seen the emergence of the ``ugly beast.''
Today Zhirinovsky's party numbers 100,000. But every day his headquarters are flooded with new applications for membership. The Barometer polling service shows that 5 percent of Russian entrepreneurs will support Zhirinovsky, which may explain his lack of financial problems in the campaign. Worse, some 40 percent of Zhirinovsky's support is among the educated but poor - engineers, researchers, technicians - whose living standards have fallen sharply during Yeltsin's reforms.
If Zhirinovsky was the big winner in December, Yeltsin was the big loser. He got slightly more than 20 percent of the electorate. Yeltsin's only victory, the adoption of his draft of the new Russian Constitution that gives the president sweeping powers, may even be used by Zhirinovsky should he win the next presidential elections.
This dramatic development invites different possible scenarios. First, if Yeltsin can't bring an effective answer to the Zhirinovsky-communist challenge, he may, if confronted by a national crisis, have to face an alliance of top Moscow bureaucrats made of part of the military and of the ``red directors'' of state-owned enterprises. This coalition may force him to step down in order to bring order. In this case Russia will be under a semi-dictatorial regime; its rationale would be to escape either civil war or the ultra-right coming to power.
A second scenario could find the silent hard-liners in the Yeltsin administration finding common language with Zhirinovsky. Serious signs point in that direction; this would strengthen the authoritarian trend in Russian politics.
Third, Yeltsin's answer to these dangers seems to be an accrual of political control in his own hands. In recent days he has taken a dramatic decision to control a large part of the dismantled Security Ministry (the former KGB) and to take operative control of the Army. The impression is that Yeltsin is amassing forces in the Kremlin, trusting no one and suspicious of everything.
Thus, what Yeltsin uses against the Zhirinovsky threat is the idea of a Russian state, restored in all its glamor and power, controlled personally by the president, and the idea that it will require dictatorial leadership to face more hardships.
What makes these scenarios dangerous is that they offer Russia three choices, all ending in dictatorship. One is represented by traditional hard-liners. The second comes by Zhirinovsky. The third dictator is Yeltsin himself, though disguised is democratic attire. Russia faces several futures, but all seem worse than the present.
The West is clearly responsible for giving Yeltsin the green light to use any means to assert power. Seeing no alternative to the Russian president, Western leaders overlook that Russia is a country that can easily slide into dictatorship, even with Yeltsin in power. They also overlook that the current Yeltsin-Gaider-Kozyrev trio is an oddity in Russia. Having so closely associated itself with it, Washington is at pains today when events call for an adjustment of its position.
In Russia, any dictatorship will be potentially dangerous for its neighbors and eventually for the West. The Pinochet-style coup is virtually impossible there, if only because Pinochet based his power on a pro-American and pro-market pre-Aliende elite.
On the contrary, any coup perpetrated by Yeltsin on the basis of his newly accepted Constitution, or by his hidden or open opponents, will have to be based on the Russian state and on the military elite that for most of its experience was basically opposed to the West and is still suspicious of market reforms.
Such a turn of events would certainly push out the artificial reformist team around Yeltsin and drag him into a policy that will take much less account of Western interests.
Fortunately, such a development can be prevented, although time is running out. The West, and the United States in the first place, should still support Yeltsin; but the support should be conditional on his faithfulness to the democratic principles he solemnly swore his allegiance to when he spoke to the US Congress. There will be no stability without the basics of democracy in Russia. Any other stability will be purchased by doing away with the democratic initiatives upon which our reforms are based.
The West must also start to look beyond Yeltsin. Western leaders still regard him as the main guarantee for stability, but time and again Yeltsin has provoked crises. In 1993, stability was the first victim of Yeltsin's ill-defined policies. In 1994, the fragile Russian democracy may face the same end.
If democracy is put off for the sake of stability and economic reforms, the country will fall victim to dictatorships. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.