Moscow asserts authority over former empire

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HAD President Clinton arrived in Moscow at the beginning of the week instead of last night, Air Force One would have flown straight into a military showdown as volatile as any crisis to convulse the former Soviet Union. For a few hours on Monday, it had seemed as if Russia and Latvia might stumble into armed conflict - at least this is the version of events presented on the eve of Mr Clinton's first official visit to Moscow.

According to Krasnaya Zvezda, organ of the Russian Defence Ministry, thousands of Russian troops in the Baltics were put on top alert while airborne forces and military transport units in the Russian city of Pskov geared up for possible action. What had begun as a quarrel over a sports centre, a rundown hotel and two other buildings erected by the Soviet military was escalating out of control. Angry messages flashed between Moscow and Riga, the Latvian capital. Diplomats were summoned, presidents advised.

The immediate cause of the ruckus has passed. Latvia has promised to punish officials said to have detained two Russian generals and, according to Moscow, held them in handcuffs for several hours after they tried to intervene in a row over property.

But the tensions that triggered the crisis - and dozens of other incidents between Moscow and former Soviet republics - remain. They highlight what has become a central theme of Russian foreign policy, explain the West's reluctance to embrace the states of Eastern Europe as Nato members, and will shape talks today between Mr Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Two years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia is asserting authority over the 'near abroad' with growing confidence and determination.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the far- right nationalist, responded to the Latvian events with characterstic bluntness: 'No light for Latvia. No petrol. Finished for Latvia. Economic blockade. If they want independence they must live in darkness.' His crude bravado, however, masks the fact that Mr Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, long regarded in the West as a liberal and pilloried in Moscow as a traitor, themselves defend Russia's 'special' interests with growing force and frequency. 'Each state is increasingly realising that it cannot cope with those most difficult problems single-handed, that it cannot survive on its own,' said Mr Yeltsin of former Soviet republics in a speech on Tuesday to parliament. 'Rapprochment between our countries is under way. It is Russia's mission to be first among equals.'

Exact details of what happened in Latvia on Monday are muddled. Scaremongering and sabre-rattling are the normal currency of relations between Moscow and the Baltic states. Russia, which has enraged nationalists in Riga by demanding that it keep control of the Skrunde radar station even after troops pull out in August, almost certainly suffered some sort of provocation. Its response, however, seems to have been dangerously excessive. Sweden yesterday condemned the troop alert as 'completely unacceptable'.

After months of confusion, a consensus has formed in Moscow over the belief that Russia has a special role in former Soviet territories and a duty to defend some 25 million Russians living outside Russia's borders. On this nearly all political parties agree.

'A whole part of the political establishment have begun to recognise Russia's specific role,' said Adranik Migranyan, a member of Mr Yeltsin's advisory Presidential Council, writing in yesterday's Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Russia, he says, needs its own 'Monroe Doctrine' based on the idea that 'all geo-political space in the former USSR is Russia's sphere of interest'.

'It has become clear that Russia can not abstain from the conflict going on along its borders and that the international community, having its hands full with problems in Yugoslavia and Africa, has no wish to take an active part in settling conflicts on the territory of the former USSR. Even if it did have such a desire, it could do nothing without active Russian participation.'