Late Winter in Moscow

MOSCOW is the capital of the ``wild, wild East.'' But Boris Yeltsin is not proving to be Wyatt Earp.

If there were any doubts about the kind of chaos and crime Moscow and Russia have been facing, the assassination of a much-loved television news anchor, Vladislav Listyev, should make it clear. The brutal killing of a public figure who wanted to limit unscrupulous commercial interests and who reported honestly on Chechnya could have been carried out by many groups, from the mafia to the secret police. Not since the death of Andrei Sakharov have so many Muscovites taken to the streets in grief.

Yet Mr. Yeltsin's reaction to the killing - sacking the police chief and the city prosecutor - seems not only rash and ineffective, but politically dangerous as well. Yeltsin is creating an enemy out of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and alienating friends in what remains of Russia's political center.

The assassination, Yeltsin's reaction, and what seems another serious power struggle in the Russian capital, ought to be yet another warning to the Clinton administration about its Russia policy. Brave American assertions aside, Russia is not yet a democracy. It is not stable, nor is it developing what could be called free markets.

In fact, just the opposite seems true at the moment: The Chechnya venture was and is a disaster, and a grave breach of human rights. Russia owes $170 billion to foreign governments. The lines of authority in Moscow have collapsed internally; there are no real political parties in the Western sense of the phrase. Nor is there much agreement about who is in charge - the Kremlin, Yeltsin, the Army, or the various leaders of mafia and the old state industry.

Now the White House has to decide whether President Clinton should accept Yeltsin's invitation to Russia for Victory in Europe celebrations in May. The invitation seemed to come from Moscow with an important clause: Don't say anything about Chechnya.

Washington, alone among major Western powers, supported Yeltsin during the Chechnya crisis - figuring, among other things, that he was better than the alternative. That may be true. But it doesn't mean the US can be silent about what now appears to be a campaign of genocide and war crimes. If, as the leader of the free world, President Clinton cannot go to Moscow and speak honestly about the Chechnya campaign, he should not go.

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