RUSSIAN ELECTIONS : Old Soviet nations back the devil they know

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The Independent Online

A joke attributed to Ukraine's President, Leonid Kuchma, has been going the rounds in eastern Europe before tomorrow's Russian election: On election night an aide rushes to President Boris Yeltsin and says: "Bad news, boss. Zyuganov's got 55 per cent." As the distraught president clutches his head, the aide adds: "No problem, though. You've got 65 per cent."

Jokes aside, there is no question that every leader in the former Soviet bloc, with the apparent exception of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, is desperate for a Yeltsin victory. Visiting Poland last week, Mr Kuchma himself said: "If Yeltsin loses, it would be an earthquake, especially for Ukraine but also for Poland."

However strongly they may feel about Mr Yeltsin's reassertion of Russian influence over many former Soviet republics, the leaders of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Moldova and other newly independent states feel sure that life would be far worse with Gennady Zyuganov. The same goes for leaders in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and others who have clashed with Mr Yeltsin over their aim of joining Nato but who still prefer him to his Communist challenger.

Although Mr Zyuganov's exact intentions are uncertain, he is clearly nostalgic for the Soviet Union and occasionally speaks of restoring the defunct state by peaceful means. Earlier this year the Russian parliament, where Communists are the largest faction, voted to condemn the 1991 treaty by which Russia, Ukraine and Belarus abolished the Soviet Union.

Alarm about the potential direction of a Zyuganov presidency is so high that Armenia's President, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, predicts that the 11 non- Russian members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) will try to dissolve the organisation if Mr Zyuganov wins. The odd man out is Belarus, where Mr Lukashenko is an unashamed advocate of union with Russia and, beyond that, full integration of the former Soviet area.

The Baltic states, with their large ethnic Russian minorities, have particular reason to be worried about Zyuganov, but they also see the presidential election as a chance to emphasise their new pro-European identity.

"The impact would be the same as on the European Union. Security is indivisible, and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are part of Europe," said Estonia's President, Lennart Meri.

According to one theory, a Zyuganov win might at least jolt Western governments into accelerating the process of admitting new members into Nato and the EU. "This could be enough of an argument for our partners in Europe to speed up the integration process," said Poland's President, Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Yet politicians in most ex-Communist countries are also conscious that rapid expansion of Nato in response to a Zyuganov victory could bring undesirable consequences. It might divide Europe into Western and Russian spheres of control hostile to each other, and raise tensions to dangerous levels in countries caught in the middle such as Ukraine and the Baltic states.