Reappraising Russia

NEWS from Russia comes thick and fast, and much of it is not good if one hopes Moscow will be a stable partner, treading toward the sunny uplands of democracy.

Moscow's expulsion of an American diplomat - tit-for-tat for the US expulsion of a Russian contact for Aldrich Ames, the alleged CIA spy who didn't come in from the cold war - was provocative and unnecessary. But it was small compared with the Russian parliament's grant of amnesty last week to former Speaker Khasbulatov, former Vice President Rutskoi, and other hard-liners from October's insurrection. A core group of the president's opponents, men Boris Yeltsin had the Army fire on and jail, have been pardoned and legitimized. Add to this an imperial policy in the ``near abroad,'' where Moscow is reasserting itself over Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan. Ask why Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev recently said the Russian takeover of the Baltics in 1940 was not an occupation. Question the placement of ``peacekeeping'' forces in Bosnia on behalf of Serbs. Note that historian Yuri Afanasyev says Mr. Yeltsin is committed to a ``new military doctrine'' of expansion, that plans to cut the Army by two-thirds are, like Mark Twain's death, greatly exaggerated, and that Russia is returning to a planned economy.

Experts foresee a possible collapse this summer of Russian heavy industry - putting thousands out of work and disillusioning many more. Last August, Yeltsin supported NATO membership for Poland and Hungary; in Jaunary, he did not.

The world has not caught up with profound changes brought by the collapse of the Soviet state. The West was late to recognize Mikhail Gorbachev; now Russia's profile and behavior have changed again, swiftly catalyzed by the election of the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

There is a need to focus more constructively on the world's second largest nuclear power. Russia is in trouble. Some speak of a new ``cool war'' between Moscow and the West; there is enough shadow boxing for such talk. Yet a rush to codify a negative image of relations should be resisted; the issues are too serious, complex, and changeable. Yeltsin did aim Russian missiles away from US targets. The Western democracies need to engage Russia, though Moscow is not becoming ``democratic.'' A realistic reappraisal of Russia, and of US policy, is needed. Is reform in Moscow finished? Is the US appeasement of Russian enlargement in the former Soviet states a wise policy? After firing his chief of secret police and canceling a speech on Monday, we must ask if Boris Yeltsin is still in charge - and if not, who is?

Circles that bear watching are those around Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, who is implementing a planned economy in Russia and the near-abroad through a new ``ruble zone''; Mr. Zhirinovsky, who provides fascistic rhetoric for politicians and the media; and Alexander Volsky, the chief representative of the reemerging military-industrial complex.

The political time and space for leverage in Russia is evaporating. Opportunities were missed; for all the talk about aid, not much was delivered. Russians want capital, but high-profile help from the West is a liability in Moscow's nationalized atmosphere.

Still, cutting scant US aid because of a spy recruited by the Soviets, as some in Congress want, is shortsighted. Being clearsighted about Russia can reenergize efforts along lines both constructive and realistic.

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