Our Boris, right or wrong: Alexei Pankin and Andrew Palmer warn that the West is too tied to Yeltsin

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A CHORUS of Western leaders will have been sharing in Boris Yeltsin's rejoicing at the destruction of his opponents. The West had collectively gambled on a Yeltsin victory, and must have been alarmed to see the slow ebb of support away from the President, as muttering advisers voiced their disquiet at his reluctance to hold simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections, and recalcitrant regions even threatened an economic blockade of Moscow. The fact of Western support for Yeltsin is not surprising, but the level of it throughout the year-long power struggle between him and the parliament should occasion questions.

At the recent opening session of the 42nd General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, the buzz word was 'preventative diplomacy'. The major powers appeared ready to absorb the lessons from the quagmires of Somalia and former Yugoslavia. Yet the new thinking does not seem to apply to Russia. The sight of leader after Western leader unequivocally backing President Yeltsin's unconstitutional dissolution of an elected body in the name of democracy was an uncomfortable one for the Western observer and a confusing one for the Russian population. Surely it would not have undermined Yeltsin too gravely, and would have played better to the wider political spectrum in Russia and beyond, to have expressed qualified support or favourable neutrality? Even if the President's actions were intended to lead to a more stable political situation in Russia, the image of the West, and therefore of democracy itself, has been tarnished.

So why did no one sound a note of caution, and what are the consequences for the relationship between Russia and the West? The easiest answer to the first question is that the West, having backed Yeltsin so firmly up until this point, felt unable to change its tune at such a critical moment. This is credible, but not sufficient. Yeltsin's democratic credentials have been increasingly questionable for the length of his power struggle with the parliament, yet he does not appear to have come under pressure from the West during any of that time to realise the ideals he stands for. He has, after all, made attempts before to sideline parliament; he has manipulated the Russian media to his own ends; and he has backtracked on free-market policies for the sake of expediency. The West has at best swallowed the caricature of a recidivist, hardline parliament, and at worst itself contributed to the present polarisation.

The key to understanding the attitude of the Western powers lies not so much with Boris Yeltsin as with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the residual elements of the Cold War mentality. Decades of stand-off led to misrepresentations and misconceptions on both sides; the conflict, moreover, was couched in ideological terms, stripped bare of the humanising influence of personality. On to this stage came Gorbachev, a revelation to Western media and politicians alike: the red menace began to acquire human features and the Yankee imperialists began to fall in love.

Boris Yeltsin is a less lovable figure, but he continues to benefit from the cult of personality that Gorbachev started, and in the conflict between Yeltsin and the parliament it is the identity of the protagonists rather than the policies they implement that defines Western support.

The West also overrates its own importance to the Russian domestic political scene: obviously it possesses a lever on goverment in the form of economic assistance, but its impact in Moscow and, particularly, in the regions, is limited. Western leaders may believe that Yeltsin - and indeed any Russian government - has no choice but to canvass their support, and that they can therefore guide Russia to the destination of their choice.

If so, this is a mistaken assumption. The driving force behind the current crisis is power rather than money, and Western aid is not a large enough carrot to force sides to reassess their positions. Moreover, Western aid has not been that substantial and has not done a significant amount to improve the economic state of the country. And it is not at all clear that the aid has been wisely distributed throughout Russia: the regions do not take kindly to a Moscow-centric approach.

Yeltsin is not yet out of the woods, and although the inauguration of President Rutskoi no longer appears a realistic prospect, the possibility of Yeltsin's eventual replacement in power by one of his many enemies (who have a habit of being his former allies) can hardly be ignored: in which case, it will be difficult for the West to transfer its eggs to another basket without mishap.

An insidious type of damage has already been done, and its effects do not depend on the success or failure of Boris Yeltsin. It is difficult to see how the West can now credibly present itself as the defender of democracy, given that realpolitik has subverted its own ideology. The really important role that the West has to play in Russia is symbolic rather than practical: if not as a nirvana, then at least as a generally prosperous, democratic and responsible set of nations whose example can act as justification for the economic hardships and political difficulties that followed the collapse of Communism.

The Russian constitution is clearly unsuitable for the country's needs, and Yeltsin has rightly tried to push its reform to the top of the agenda. If it finally arrives, however, it will be based on one or more of the Western systems. The capacity for this to represent a truly new start will not have been helped by the manner in which it will be created, nor by the actions of those who supply the models for reform.

Moreover, by legitimising his dissolution of parliament, the West has given more ammunition to devolutionary sentiment in the regions and provinces that seek insulation from the chaos in Moscow. More worringly still, the Russian army's hand has been strengthened, particularly in its involvement in the fighting in Georgia between Abkhazian rebels and the government there. By backing Yeltsin so vociferously, the West has made it difficult to maintain strong ties with the beleaguered Georgian president and its long-standing friend, Eduard Shevardnadze.

In addition, the coming wrangles over Nato membership for former Communist bloc countries will see the West caught squarely between a Russian President responding to the demands of his military backers not to allow this development, and nations such as Poland and Hungary who may well wish to join.

In effect, President Yeltsin has forced the pace, but the West has applied the whip, and allowed everyone, itself included, to enter a political cul-de-

sac. It is of course true that in the current crisis Western leaders had to pick one side at the expense of the other, but, set in a longer-term context, they are themselves partly responsible for having to make that choice.

The authors work for the East-West Co- operation Programme of the European

Institute for the Media in Dusseldorf, Germany.

(Photograph omitted)