Leading Article: Braced for the end of the Yeltsin era

Amid the ruins of Grozny, Boris Yeltsin's political hopes have all but perished over the past few days. The Russian president has looked ineffectual and powerless as rebels have once again captured parts of the Chechen capital. He is embroiled, according to his opponents, in a "second Afghanistan" from which there is no easy escape. The manifest failure of the Russian leadership over the past 15 months, either to crush the independence movement or to negotiate a political solution to the conflict, has shattered Mr Yeltsin's chances of re-election in June.

As a result, the West must brace itself for a Communist to take his place in the Kremlin. Opinion polls indicate that Russian voters will back Gennady Zyuganov, a lifelong Communist who opposes economic liberalisation and has called for a peaceful re-establishment of the former Soviet Union. The disastrous campaign in Chechnya, where 25,000 people have already lost their lives, is the final straw for most Russians already bitter about economic reform which, in the short run, has produced only pain.

All this is making Western governments feel worried. Leaders ranging from Helmut Kohl to Bill Clinton have made clear their preference for Mr Yeltsin, convinced that the Russian president, for all his faults and ill-health, offers the best chance of internal stability, reform and peaceful coexistence with the West. Only last week, the German and French governments announced a $3bn loan to the Russians, on top of the $10bn three-year loan negotiated with the International Monetary Fund.

But the West should not be so concerned about the result of the election, for Mr Yeltsin no longer offers as much as he once promised. The brute force with which he has tackled the Chechen conflict has undermined his democratic credentials.

More important, Mr Zyuganov is far less of a threat than appearances might suggest. For all his talk of resurrecting the Soviet Union, he is committed, at least publicly, to using only peaceful means. And a Russian army that cannot establish control of Chechnya is in no position to realise territorial ambitions in, for example, Ukraine.

As for Mr Zyuganov's economic programme, it is equally unrealistic. Most people may be fed up with privatisation and giving market forces a free rein, but there is no alternative. Most state enterprises have already been sold, creating a powerful class of entrepreneurs and managers who would fight a policy reversal. Nationalisation would also be expensive, beyond the means of the Russian government, which would have to sacrifice its access to the IMF loans if it broke undertakings to limit state spending.

In short, Mr Zyuganov's rhetoric appeals to the nostalgia of an angry and disaffected electorate. But his room for manoeuvre is limited, if he is not to plunge Russia into bankruptcy and international isolation.

Russia is indeed entering a period of political uncertainty. But the West would be wise to stay calm as Mr Yeltsin, its once great hope, faces defeat.