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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high