1994: a year for making peace or war?: As Yeltsin faces the challenge of Zhirinovsky, Cold War attitudes may return, argues Conor Cruise O'Brien

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The Independent Online
1994 will be no more like Orwell's 1984 than the real 1984 was. But it may well be more like 1984 than would have been conceivable during the euphoric opening of this decade. It looks as if a modified version of the Cold War is coming back.

Boris Yeltsin, with his new constitution in his pocket, need not be all that impressed by the strength of the 'neo-fascists' (who are really paleo-Russians) in the new parliament. But he knows that a great many Russians who may not have voted Liberal Democrat - who perhaps voted Communist for example - feel the same way about Great Russian nationalism. He knows also that many of these are in uniform, at every rank, and perhaps most fervently at the highest. In any case, he probably feels much the same way himself. He is, after all, very Russian.

So he has strong incentives to be seen 'to stand up to' the Americans, even though he needs their money. And he may well calculate that the more he stands up to them - if he does it craftily enough - the more of their money he is likely to get. Already, as a result of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's strong showing in the elections, the International Monetary Fund is relaxing its credit terms to Russia. 'Toughness pays' is how the Kremlin has to receive that signal.

One of Russia's few international assets - apart from the fear it still inspires - is its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the most obvious, as well as the safest, theatre in which to be seen to stand up to America. So the famous Soviet veto, of which so much was heard for 40 years after the Second World War, is likely to be heard of again in 1994. The vision of a New World Order, under American management, peaked in Desert Storm. It has been fading since, quite fast in 1993; it is likely to be replaced by a growing emphasis on contention.

There will be laments for this decline in the authority of the UN. But the laments are misplaced. The UN never had any authority, other than a symbolic one which was always designed to be manipulated by the powers in the management of their rivalries. Briefly, in and around Desert Storm, the United States was in a position to do all the manipulating. In 1994, we shall be returning to the symbolism that the founders of the UN intended, and the Russians will restore to themselves their share of the manipulation of the symbol. Their symbol is vulgarly known in the West as 'the veto'.

The Russian interest in a return, if not to full Cold War, at least to fairly robust Cold War symbolism, is clear. But for the West also, some degree of return to Cold War conditions has attractions. For an American president, especially, the perceived condition of omnipotence has been found to have unexpected and uncomfortable disadvantages. Whatever scenes of horror in distant places the television screen might reveal - in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere - the omnipotent president was inevitably expected to put it to rights. Since America was omnipotent, American values must shortly triumph throughout the world. Wherever they failed to do so - and that continued to be most of the world - there was a tendency to blame the president.

At this point, we can discern an unexpected symmetry of interests between the Russians and the West, or at least between the Western and the Russian leaders. Yeltsin needs to be seen to stand up to the Americans but also - luckily for Yeltsin - the Americans need to have the Russians be seen to stand up to them. Faced with the revival of an old and dreaded enemy, the American presidency can without disgrace lay down the oppressive burden of perceived omnipotence. The opponents, as often in history, need one another. Relations between Russia and the West are likely to become increasingly adversarial in appearance, and increasingly collusive in practice, during 1994.

'Adversarial partnership' is well established in the Middle East; the term was first used by an area specialist, Ian Lustick, to describe the relationship between Israel and Jordan. A tendency towards adversarial partnership has been inherent in the relationship between the West and Russia for some years, but the adversarial aspect had recently been neglected. It has been revived by the results and implications of the Russian elections.

For the public in the West, the threat of the Evil Empire is revived in the person of Zhirinovsky. Boris and Vladimir are exceptionally well cast for a nice- cop-tough-cop routine. Yeltsin must not only become more assertive on the international stage, but he must do what he can to restore Russian power throughout the former Soviet Union. This will strain relations with the West but that strain will not be entirely unwelcome to the West.

The adversarial aspect of the partnership will probably be contained within the UN, according to procedures familiar from the earlier phases of the Cold War and subject to the 'veto'. The partnership - and world peace - can survive that mode of adversariality. But the peace will not be as stable as many hope.

(Photographs omitted)