Leading Article: Time for reform is running out

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA's election results pose two main questions. The first is whether the new constitution will be workable without a majority of reformers in the State Duma (lower house). The answer will determine whether economic reforms continue and ultimately whether Boris Yeltsin can survive. The second question is whether Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist leader of the misnamed Liberal Democrats, is the beneficiary of a transient protest vote or a rising tide of Russian nationalism. The answer to this question will determine, among other things, whether the West will have to rearm.

The complete results and the shape of the new Duma will take time to emerge, but the broad verdict of the voters seems reasonably clear. They supported Mr Yeltsin's constitution, and therefore by implication the man himself, but they are fed up with the reformist advisers who surround him, holding them responsible for worsening hardship and muddled campaigning. Although the two messages may look contradictory, they seem to merge in a demand for strong government.

To that extent, Mr Yeltsin has a mandate to pursue the presidential rule that his constitution provides for. He can choose his prime minister and, through him, the government. He can appoint the central bank chairman, issue decrees and dissolve the Duma if it becomes too awkward. These powers should enable him to implement existing laws and pass new ones with more vigour and consistency than was permitted by the last parliament.

But a hostile parliament could still make life difficult for him, especially as it can claim more democratic legitimacy than its predecessor. If Mr Zhirinovsky decides to use it as a platform from which to campaign for the presidency in 1996 it will not be the docile instrument for which Mr Yeltsin hoped.

Party affiliations are still so loose, however, that predictions are risky. What look like neat blocks could turn into shifting alliances as individuals discover that they owe more loyalty to regions or interest groups than to flimsy parties set up simply to fight the election. On some issues Mr Yeltsin could find himself with a majority that owed nothing to electoral arithmetic. The fate of the reforms is, therefore, still in the balance and likely to remain there for a while.

Meanwhile the spotlight will be on Mr Zhirinovsky, a worrying figure whose stated policies would, if carried out, plunge Russia into economic chaos and war. He has pledged, among other things, to restore the frontiers of the Soviet Union. He is xenophobic, racist, reactionary and irresponsibly populist, elevating saloon-bar wisdom to national policy.

Up to a point he has simply captured the popular mood of the moment, articulating the disappointment and confusion of ordinary people and their anger with political leaders, much as outsiders are doing in Western democracies. But he also represents a deeper current in the Russian tradition.

Since the last century and earlier, Russia has been pulled two ways: by Westernisers on the one hand and Slavophiles on the other. The reformists who cluster around Mr Yeltsin are Westernisers. Their opponents are now tapping the Slavophile tradition, with its rejection of Western values and its belief in the unique mission of Russia. They are represented at the intellectual level by writers such as Solzhenitsyn and at many other levels by those who feel humiliated by the loss of empire, suspicious of Western consumerism, excluded from the first fruits of economic reform and hostile to the Moscow elites.

In the last century those elites spoke French; now it is American. Their recent election campaign reinforced the popular perception that they live in a world of their own, divorced from the physical and spiritual reality of Russia. Had they started much earlier to build political support for their policies, and been mature enough to unite, they would have done better, which suggests that they still have the potential to do so. As it was, they were seen, unfairly, as having ruined the economy and shrunk the motherland (Russians tend to see their imperial acquisitions as extensions of Russia itself).

They and Mr Yeltsin may now, with luck, have two years in which to turn the tide by showing results from reform and building a political organisation that can confront and answer Mr Zhirinovsky. The task is difficult but not hopeless. While Mr Zhirinosvky speaks to the Slavophile heart, his message will disturb many minds. Russians may like the idea of recovering the empire but they will shrink from the cost of doing so. Even the army may not want that much fighting. The regions of Russia will also resist still greater centralisation than Mr Yeltsin is already pursuing. If the economy starts to recover, people will prefer not to rock the boat. And when television gets to work on Mr Zhirinovsky his stature is as likely to decrease as increase.

Nevertheless, his emergence should make the Western alliance cautious. It must pursue a two- track policy, doing all it can to assist the process of economic and political reform in Russia while preparing for failure. Russia has always been an awkward European neighbour. In the days when European powers juggled with the balance of power it could be drawn in by one group against another. Now Europe must act together, hoping to switch Russian history on to a new track that will make co-operation permanent, but not yet sure if the time has come. Western governments had assumed that they could rely on about 10 years of Russian weakness in which to foster this process. The time available may be shrinking.