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After Yeltsin there can only be the deluge

IN SOME respects, we have been here before. This time, however, things may at last be different. The compliments that were showered upon Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader, at last week's summit of the G7 - the club of the world's seven richest and most powerful countries - sounded eerily similar to what we heard this time last year.

At that time, there was a very different ruler in the Kremlin. Mr Yeltsin, in that prehistoric era 12 months ago, was seen by the West as a mere irritant and a troublemaker, who deserved to stay out in the cold.

The G7 summit in July 1991 was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, and Mikhail Gorbachev, although a late addition to the guest list, was the main attraction. No words of praise could suffice. He was perceived as the man who had liberated Eastern Europe, and who had helped to make possible the advent of the New World Order.

Admittedly, in July 1991, the Lithuanian television centre was still occupied by Soviet troops, who had stormed it six months earlier, and President Gorbachev was still insisting on his loyalty to Lenin. But it was Mr Gorbachev, not Mr Yeltsin, on whom the West had put its money. Still, even Western leaders were wary of coming up with hard cash for Mr Gorbachev. In July 1991, the G7 leaders sent him back to Moscow, with declarations of political love, but otherwise empty-handed.

When the coup came a month later, some regarded this as proof that the West should have done more to help Mr Gorbachev. If only we had stumped up cash, the argument ran, then the coup would never have taken place. Russian radicals - nearly all of whom had quarrelled with President Gorbachev by the time of the coup - argued differently. They said that the coup proved that the West had been wrong to stake everything on the - by now - obsolete Mr Gorbachev.

But if the West was wrong to ignore the elected Mr Yeltsin in favour of the Communist Party leader in 1991, the question now is: is the present Russian leader someone who can deliver?

Certainly, the Western coffers have opened up - in theory, at least - much more than ever before. Aid of dollars 24bn ( pounds 12.6bn) is now on offer through the International Monetary Fund and through debt rescheduling. The Western funds include dollars 1bn up front, with the rest dependent on the success of further reforms. It will, for example, be necessary to begin breaking up the collective farms that still dominate Russian agriculture.

It will be necessary, too, to bring inflation under control. In a dramatic move, Mr Yeltsin offered to swap Russian mineral rights, land and energy resources for a debt write-off. The Russian leader commented: 'We are paying a very, very high price for the transition from totalitarianism and communism to the civilised world.'

Mr Yeltsin was formerly seen by many in the West as a man who talked big, but could never deliver. Even after the August coup, when he was given much credit for his political and physical courage, it was assumed that he would never have the clout to carry through radical change. But he has delivered more change than could ever have been thought possible, in the seven months since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, remarkably, it has not yet led to mass unrest. Mr Yeltsin's popularity has fallen, but he is still by far the most popular politician in the country. The threat of hardline communists and - more dangerously, perhaps - the threat from the nationalist far right is real. Some form of fascism can easily take root, amid a degree of political chaos and resentment which makes Weimar Germany seem a model of stability.

Many people hanker all too obviously after simple solutions, which will once again restore 'Russia's greatness'.

The West always used to believe Mr Gorbachev was irreplaceable. In reality, he merely represented the human face of the collapsing old order.

Boris Yeltsin may, however, prove to be genuinely one of a kind. There are no democrats in shining armour - no Andrei Sakharovs - waiting in the wings. However flawed Mr Yeltsin may be, the chances, if he were ousted, of a Yeltsin successor being more liberal or more committed to radical change than he is are remote indeed.

Rather, a new Russian leader might be inclined to bang the nationalist drum dangerously loud.