Leading Article: Echoes of old Russia resound

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The Independent Online
ONCE again there is a Cold War nip in the air. In Washington, a former head of the CIA's Soviet counter-intelligence department is accused of having spied for Moscow for many years. In Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin continues to behave - just as his Communist predecessors did - as if the disastrous state of the Russian economy in no way affects its status as a great power: the one-day, five-power summit he has proposed to solve the complex problems of Bosnia can do little harm, but the chances of it achieving much look low. As for the Russian parliament's vote to amnesty those - still untried - who planned last October's abortive coup against Mr Yeltsin, it bodes no good either for the Russian president or for the West.

Although it was not by any standards a good day for US-Russian relations, there seems no real cause for serious anxiety (except perhaps in Moscow, since the US Congress is now less likely to approve economic aid). Naturally, the Americans had to put on a good show of indignation at Russian success in suborning a senior and devastatingly well-placed CIA official. But to suggest that the end of the Cold War has rendered spying somehow out of order, as the Americans have been doing, will convince nobody.

Are the Americans suggesting that they have no spies in Moscow? With Russia and its former constituent republics far more volatile and unpredictable than in the Communist era, the need is for more rather than less information.

Russia's volatility is likely to be increased if Messrs Khasbulatov, Rutskoi and their fellow October plotters soon walk free from their Moscow prison. A few by-elections and the more dangerous of them could be back in parliament. No one can yet tell how strong their following remains, or how fiercely their ambitions or desire for revenge still burn. At least they have the virtue of being less extreme than Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and presumably capable of siphoning off some of the latter's admirers.

To judge by the way in which Mr Yeltsin has dumped his reformist ministers and jumped on the nationalist bandwagon, there may soon be only a small gap between his deeds and the aspirations of his old foes. The timing of his intervention in Bosnia was exquisite, and discomfiting to the Americans: perhaps the news of the CIA official's treachery was released on Tuesday as a counter-thrust calculated to arouse slumbering mistrust of the Russian bear.

One lesson of this week's events is that great nations retain certain characteristics and remain attached to their traditional sphere of interest. Even though tremendous changes have taken place there, Russia is likely to remain at best an unpredictable partner and at worst actively hostile. Only if the Russians succeed in making a complete transition to liberal democracy are its old characteristics likely to change. That process has begun, but it is still in an early phase. The West must remain realistic for all the hopes aroused by the end of Communism. The Great Game goes on.