Since the nationalist and Communist successes in last month's parliamentary elections, reformist politicians either have been in retreat or have started to emphasise the more conservative aspects of their policies. Those in retreat include Yegor Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov, the chief exponents of radical economic change and fiscal restraint in the old government. Theo Waigel, Germany's Finance Minister, described Mr Gaidar's resignation this week as 'a serious sign' for the future of Russian reform.
Those singing a less liberal tune include Andrei Kozyrev, the Foreign Minister, who is the only other prominent reformer in the outgoing cabinet. He told Russian ambassadors yesterday that Russian soldiers should remain in former Soviet republics. 'We should not withdraw from those regions which have been a sphere of Russian interests for centuries,' he said.
Such remarks, which undoubtedly have Mr Yeltsin's endorsement, are guaranteed to cause alarm among Russia's neighbours. They have especially serious implications for Ukraine, where a Russian nationalist won elections in the Crimean peninsula on Sunday on a platform of turning the region into a Russian possession.
Mr Yeltsin appears to believe that he can maintain his authority over Russia by blending a tougher foreign policy with a more conservative approach on the economy. Armed with the extensive powers afforded to him by Russia's new constitution, he hopes that these tactics will neutralise his critics in the parliament and cut the ground from under Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extreme nationalist who is already plotting his bid for the presidency in 1996.
However, Russian economists fear Mr Yeltsin is likely to unleash hyperinflation by relaxing fiscal policy in order to permit greater expenditure on social welfare. Mr Fyodorov brought monthly inflation down to 12 per cent in December, but in the first week of January alone prices rose by 6.3 per cent.
Russian analysts also doubt that increased social spending will deprive Mr Zhirinovsky of his solid electoral base. Voters turned to him less because of the hardships caused by market reforms than because they wanted a strong government that stood for discipline, order and a restoration of national pride.
The almost total collapse of a coherent reform policy is encapsulated in the fall of the Russian rouble. It stood at 415 to the dollar in December 1992 and 1,250 last month. It sank yesterday to 1,504 on Moscow's Interbank Currency Exchange and was quoted after trading at 1,650 by one Russian bank.
'The tragedy is that the President does not have his own course. He wavers, as the value of the rouble and dollar wavers,' said Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of the liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
On certain points, Mr Yeltsin wavers less than imagined. Soon after Mr Zhirinovsky's startling electoral performance, Mr Yeltsin increased government control of the media and his aides drafted plans for emergency presidential rule and a ban on all political parties.
Such steps underline the President's perception of the parliament as an institution that is likely to be as troublesome as its predecessor, dissolved by force in last October's anti-Yeltsin revolt. They also make clear that Mr Yeltsin is weighing 'an authoritarian solution' as one answer to Russia's chaos.
For the West, the important question is how this translates into foreign policy. Long before the appearance of the Zhirinovsky phenomenon, Mr Yeltsin and his allies were reasserting Moscow's grip on 'the near abroad', as the former Soviet republics are known in Russia. Intervention in Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan was matched by warnings to Estonia and Latvia not to mistreat their Russian minorities if they wanted the withdrawal of Russian troops from their soil.
The Kremlin has also put pressure on Nato not to admit Eastern European countries, demanded 'special powers' to keep the peace in the 'near abroad' and proposed a revision of an East-West treaty on reducing conventional forces in Europe. Its new military doctrine specifies that discrimination against Russians in the 'near abroad' will be regarded as a threat to Russia.
Whereas many Russians once welcomed the Soviet Union's break- up as a chance to build a free and prosperous Russia, there is now ample evidence that both Russian leaders and public opinion favour a strong line towards the former republics. Coupled with the disarray in Russia's economy and the renewed struggle between Mr Yeltsin and a recalcitrant parliament, this suggests that dangerous times lie ahead in the former Soviet empire.Reuse content