Russia: Alarm-bells ring but US insists on business as usual

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THE electoral success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky calls the bluff of Western policy-makers who have been trying to convince themselves for the past two years that Russia was on the road to reform.

The same diplomats who time and again have emphasised that 'reform is the benchmark' admitted they would now have to accept that Boris Yeltsin would have to slow down or scrap those measures to accommodate his new parliament. 'I always said it would be a difficult parliament to deal with, but we didn't think it would be quite like this,' said one British diplomat. 'That one-quarter of the Russian people would vote for what looks like a Russian fuhrer.'

With the ultra-nationalist Mr Zhirinovsky set to become the biggest single force in Russia's parliament, it was clear to the Central Europeans that an expansion eastwards of Nato to take them into the Western club was now totally out of the question. 'If Russia is in perpetual economic chaos the nationalists will consider all outsiders as enemies and develop nostalgia about the Soviet military machine,' said a diplomat of the Visegrad group - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who have all applied for Nato membership. 'That certainly does not make for a quick expansion of Nato.'

A Western diplomat said the election result would also inevitably affect the thinking about US proposals on 'Partnerships for Peace' between Nato and the Central Europeans. The proposals were due to be discussed at a Nato summit in January. 'The US will have to look at it again,' said a Western diplomat.

President Bill Clinton insisted yesterday that he planned 'no change in my policy in general terms toward Russia'. He was 'very pleased' at the approval of a constitution establishing democracy and a strong presidency. Yet throughout the Russian 'reform' process, Western policy-makers have emphasised that it was the progress on reforms, and not Mr Yeltsin personally, that was the key to Western support, and that financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund would make aid conditional on those reforms. That policy is now clearly out of the window. 'If he has to slow down the pace, we'll have to accept that,' said a Western diplomat. 'We should also try to establish a dialogue on all levels with these people - including the loonier ones - to try and find the least objectionable elements to deal with.'

Residual wishful thinking focused on elements such as Women of Russia and Grigory Yavlinsky, the pro-Western market reformer who had been something of a pre-election favourite with the British Foreign Office. 'We must wait and see how many of these smaller groups get through the five-per-cent barrier,' said a British diplomat. 'If you agglomerate that lot, it might not look so bad.'

But Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, did not mince his words in Britain's first public reaction to Mr Zhirinovsky's electoral success. 'It is alarming. This is a man who has said alarming and unacceptable things on his way up.'

He added that after the 'rather humiliating' collapse of the Soviet Union, 'it is not surprising there is a backlash. What is worrying is that it should take this extreme nationalist, unacceptable form.'

The French made a bewildering attempt to play down the triumph of the ultra-nationalists: 'Nothing is final. The results are only partially known,' said a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. 'We salute the adoption of the new constitution by democratic process. Voting took place in good conditions. These votes are a step towards the establishment of democracy in Russia.'

It bore echoes of the what appeared a prematurely optimistic statement the day before by Dieter Vogel, the German government spokesman. 'It is good . . . that the clear majority of those who turned up to vote approved the new constitution,' Mr Vogel said on Monday. 'It means that the question of reforms and democratic traditions in Russia will be, and in fact already has been, fundamentally settled.'

A more sombre note was struck yesterday by the German president of the Central Council of Jews, Ignatz Bubis. He predicted the arrival of 'several thousand' Russian Jews in Germany.

(Photograph omitted)