Leading article: Get tough with Russia, and ignore Mr Yeltsin's threats and tantrums

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THE DRAMATIC walk-out by President Yeltsin from the summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe yesterday afternoon could be seen as proof that Russia must not be pressed too hard. If one were looking for evidence of Russian sensitivity, here - it seemed - was the ultimate proof.

In reality, however, Mr Yeltsin's fit of pique demonstrated, above all, the need for world leaders to hold their nerve. Just hours after the walk-out in Istanbul, it was reported that Russia was ready for the first time to permit a delegation from the OSCE (which is, in effect, a mini- UN embracing North America and Europe) to visit Chechnya.

Mr Yeltsin's show of indignation reflects the Russian belief that when foreigners bleat about human rights, it is necessary only to spit contemptuously in response. In some respects, the Kremlin's attitude to human rights has scarcely moved on since the time of Leonid Brezhnev, the inflexible Soviet leader who signed up for the OSCE a quarter of a century ago.

Mr Yeltsin insisted that Russia would never negotiate with "bandits and murderers". It is, however, a diplomatic truism that many of the most important recent breakthroughs - in Belfast, Jerusalem, wherever - have followed conversations with dodgy characters.

In addition, the Russians' own behaviour has been so closely intertwined with banditry that it ill behoves the Kremlin to condemn the morality of others.

Even now, Western leaders are eager not to offend. When President Clinton attempted to nudge Russia away from its bad behaviour this week, his remarks - including the acknowledgement that Russia has the right to defend itself from "terrorists" - were reported in Moscow as though he had given a thumbs- up to Moscow's policies in Chechnya. The veiled criticisms were entirely ignored.

The idea that we must be soft on Russia in order to coax it into the democratic fold is misconceived - however much Russia would like us to believe otherwise. There are limited reasons for optimism. Despite everything, the prospects for Russia are better than they were just a few years ago. Free elections and a free (if still mafia-ridden) economy may eventually bring sanity. Not, however, if it continues with more Chechnyas. If Russia looks around, it should notice that the European countries that are doing worst - most notably, Serbia - are those that trample on the rights of others. Moscow must finally learn that there's a connection.

Whatever happens, its partners in dialogue - including fellow-members of the 54-country OSCE - must not back down. On the contrary, the prospect of suspension or expulsion (as has already happened with Milosevic's Yugoslavia) should be threatened, if Russia does not pull back from Chechnya. Russia does not wish to be a pariah; it must learn how to avoid that fate.

It is regrettable that successive governments have understood more about sticks than about carrots. If Russia wants to play ball with the rest of the world, so much the better. If it doesn't, so much the worse - above all, for Russia itself.