ON both sides of the Atlantic the latest pronouncements of Russian extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are discussed almost as if they were Russian policy and he were head of state. Mr. Zhirinovsky is, of course, simply a member of parliament. Yet events since his election in December raise the question: Is Zhirinovsky, or at least his fascist platform, setting Russian policy?
The chain of events since 18 million Russians elected him is not encouraging. Shortly after President Clinton received assurances from President Boris Yeltsin about liberal reforms, the reform leaders were forced out. A growing convergence of hard-line Russian military, political, and economic policies is taking place - evident in the Russian ``near abroad,'' the former states of the Soviet Union.
Last week in Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze and Mr. Yeltsin discussed bringing Georgia into Russia's ``ruble zone.'' Having impoverished Georgia by kicking it out of the ruble zone last summer, and having destabilized it by supporting the Abkhazian rebels, Russia has forced Georgia back into its grasp. Georgia will get cheap oil; but rejoining the ruble zone means Georgia's economic policy will be determined by the central bank in Moscow. Russia gets four or five Russian military bases in Georgia, ostensibly to ``keep the peace.''
In Belarus, two weeks after his meeting with President Clinton, the independence-minded parliament speaker Stanislav Sushkevich was ousted by a cabal made up of the ardently pro-Russian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich and Viktor Chernomyrdin, the new Russian prime minister. The new speaker of the Belarussian parliament, Mechislav Gryb, appears to be a rubber stamp for Moscow.
In Moldova, Russia's 14th Army sits, ostensibly for reasons of peacekeeping in the Trans-Dneister. But US intelligence reports leaked to the press in January suggest a coming civil war in neighboring Ukraine, with the 25 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine splitting away. With the pro-Moscow Russian candidate winning the runoff elections in the Crimea last week, control of the Black Sea fleet is still an issue. The president of Moldova and a number of Western military intelligence experts argue the 14th Army is set for a pincers movement into Ukraine, should Russia decide to move if Ukraine splits apart.
The US and Europe have tried to use economic carrots to support reform in Russia. But actual help has been scanty; blaming the International Monetary Fund for not removing tough conditions on aid to Russia is a cop-out. The problems in Russia and the desires of the hard-liners run much deeper than economics. Meanwhile, a major economic treaty between Russia and the EU is in limbo; Zhirinovsky's election brought a European reappraisal.
In security terms, the West is in a Catch-22. If it moves quickly to bring Eastern Europe into Western alliances, Russian hard-liners will shout that they are being isolated. If the East is left in limbo to satisfy Moscow, Zhirinovskyites will tell each other their analysis was correct that the West is weak and frightened.
Zhirinovsky represents the view that Russia wants to be a great power and does not want liberal reforms, handouts, or lectures about democracy. Washington must develop a policy that respects this intent, but that takes a tough line on the sovereignty of independent states, especially Ukraine.