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Protest vote promotes a poser: Zhirinovsky's poll success owes more to Russian disenchantment with reform than to his own wild promises. The West's hidden fears

WESTERN politicians put a brave face yesterday on the success in Russia's elections of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his extreme nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. But over the last week an air of concern, doubt and even despair has hung over Western capitals as governments assess whether their strategy towards Russia needs fundamental revision.

The US Vice-President, Al Gore, told reporters in Budapest that President Boris Yeltsin and his colleagues had restated their commitment to reform when he met them in Moscow last Wednesday. 'I found the Russian leadership in a confident and determined mood, totally committed to continuing reform and the democratic transition and the economic transition,' he said.

'I predict that he (Yeltsin) will be able to gain majority support on many important initiatives he is pursuing. On other questions, we will simply have to wait and see what occurs in the Duma (the lower house of the parliament elected last Sunday).'

Germany's Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, who arrived in Moscow yesterday, sounded an equally positive note. 'We should not over-dramatise the result of the Russian elections. Germany will continue to support democratic forces in Russia,' he said.

Although some Western politicians made clear their disgust for Mr Zhirinovsky and his ambitions, the general message for the Western public last week was that all is far from lost in Russia. Mr Yeltsin secured the passage of his constitution, granting him extensive powers to govern the country; and Mr Zhirinovsky's party will, after all, control only about one in six of the Duma's 450 seats.

Whether the mood behind the scenes is so sanguine is less certain. They may not say it publicly, but some Western policy-makers would endorse the remarks made by President Lech Walesa of Poland in an interview published in the Belgian daily Le Soir on Friday. 'This vote is worrying; it should not be minimalised, but for me it is not a real surprise. Russian traditions are totally different from ours, and so is their mentality,' he said.

'Let's be serious, though. Russia is not going to declare war on us. It is not the Poles who should be afraid, it is you, the Westerners. You have no strategy; all you do is make concessions without getting much in return,' he added.

There are two camps of opinion on Western policy towards Russia. One says that Western countries, by failing to offer sufficient economic support to Russia and by allowing living standards to crash, may have lost a priceless opportunity to guide the country in the direction of democracy, prosperity and a responsible foreign policy. This camp also tends to the view that the West may have erred in pinning its hopes on the radical market- based reforms of Yegor Gaidar, Mr Yeltsin's economics wizard.

The second camp argues that the West's ability to influence Russian affairs was never very high in the first place, particularly in conditions of largely self-imposed economic failure, ethnic unrest and deep internal political divisions. This camp accepts the need for international co-operation with Russia and a degree of economic support, but places more emphasis on the importance of defending the West's own economic and security interests.

Since Mr Zhirinovsky's success, certain uncomfortable questions are demanding an answer. Does Russia's lurch to the far right increase the urgency of admitting countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic into Nato, or does it rule out that option entirely? If a militantly nationalist Russia interfered in Ukraine, would the West stand by, accepting that this is an area of traditional Russian control? What about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, whose annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940 the West never accepted? The Balts have grave doubts about the extent of Western commitment to their independence.

Though Western leaders found it convenient last week to portray Mr Yeltsin and his team as reformers worthy of support, the fact is that some elements of his foreign policy overlap with Mr Zhirinovsky's.

These do not, of course, include the absurd fantasies of Russian annexation of Finland and expansion to the Indian Ocean. But they do include a vigorous assertion of the rights of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics and the belief that Russia has a right to 'keep the peace' in these fragile independent states. They also include the view that the West should not be allowed to bring into its embrace eastern European countries that were once in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

Even under Mr Yeltsin, Russian foreign policy has acquired an increasingly firm tone that may bode ill for the future. Of particular concern was Russia's recent argument that a cornerstone East-West treaty on reducing conventional forces in Europe should be rewritten to allow Russia to boost its military presence on its southern border.

The real danger arising from last Sunday's elections may well be not Mr Zhirinovsky's victory, but the fact that his vision of a mighty Russia, a Russia that can stand tall again in the world, is shared by so many people in the political, defence and security establishments. For the West, this means some hard choices about how far east the Western influence should run, and how to maintain an amicable relationship with a Russia that believes it must reverse its recent setbacks and humiliations on the international stage.