Liberals awake to the rapid rise of the right

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The Independent Online
EVER since the Soviet Union collapsed last December, Russia's liberal reformers have been ringing the alarm bells, warning of the danger of a conservative reaction. This week, with the triumph of Boris Yeltsin's opponents at the Congress of People's Deputies, the liberals' nightmare appears to be coming true.

It is not so much that Russia's progress to a market economy is under threat. The age of radical economic reform passed months ago, if indeed it ever properly started. The government of Yegor Gaidar, who was removed as acting prime minister on Monday, certainly tried to pursue radical reform, but it was knocked off course as early as last April.

The real danger arising from Mr Yeltsin's defeat is that it may lead to a more conservative, nationalistic Russian foreign policy and conceivably to a curtailment of democratic freedoms at home. Virtually the only heavyweight liberal now left in the Russian government is the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, and even he has been fighting a rearguard battle against attempts by conservatives to go to the defence of ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics.

In the first six months after his triumph over the coup plotters of August 1991, Mr Yeltsin looked in strong political shape. He persuaded the notoriously conservative parliament to grant him emergency powers to rule Russia, and he promoted reformers such as Mr Gaidar and other young intellectuals who were relatively untainted by a Communist past.

But his enemies had not given up the ghost. They were alarmed at Mr Gaidar's success in taking over the entire Soviet apparatus of government. They were surprised that Mr Yeltsin's Polish-style 'shock therapy' reforms, including enormous price rises for basic goods, did not bring protesting Russians on to the streets.

In April, they fought back and forced Mr Gaidar into important concessions on economic policy, notably the release of hundreds of billions of roubles in extra subsidies to state enterprises. In May, the industrialists' lobby placed three of their own men in the government; one was Viktor Chernomyrdin, now the Prime Minister. Mr Yeltsin felt obliged to do a deal with them because an even greater danger lurked in the shape of the far right, a combination of army officers, Russian nationalists and diehard Communists.

Conservative forces were on the rise elsewhere. In July, the Security Council, a mysterious, unelected body which is subordinate neither to the parliament nor government, vastly expanded its powers. So did its secretary, Yury Skokov, a man who had spent 30 years in the Soviet military-industrial complex. Significantly, Mr Skokov beat Mr Chernomyrdin on Monday in the first parliamentary vote for prime minister.

Other signs included the rise to prominence of hardline generals in the Russian armed forces, and much growling about alleged discrimination against ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, Moldova and Ukraine. By October, the situation had grown even more serious. The conservative Speaker of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, deployed armed units of a 5,000- strong parliamentary guard outside the offices of the liberal newspaper Izvestia. The extreme right formed a new political movement, the National Salvation Front.

Mr Yeltsin banned the Front and the parliamentary guard, but his measures had little immediate effect. He also failed to persuade the parliament to postpone this month's Congress until next spring. Now largely on the defensive, he gave up more ground to the nationalists by suspending the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states.

It was in these circumstances that four of his main reformist allies - Mr Kozyrev, Gennady Burbulis, Mikhail Poltoranin and Anatoly Chubais - went public with a warning that the parliament was plotting a concerted attack on the President's democratic reforms. Some liberals were so worried that they urged Mr Yeltsin to dissolve the parliament and impose direct presidential rule. When he visited Britain last month, the President hinted that he might do just that.

So far, he has held back from such drastic steps. But his position has been gravely weakened this week and, if he wants to remain in control of the ship of state, he will surely think again. The only question is whether Russia's political crisis is so deep that the ship will sink anyway.