Nato's nervousness over Russia's new initiative in Bosnia had already indicated that relations between the West and Russia were beginning to sour. And the forces at work are powerful enough to keep the process going.
For more than two years, expectations on both sides have been unrealistically, even crazily high. With Western aid and tutelage, Russia could, it was believed, transcend its unsuitable political and economic conditions and make a rapid transition to democracy, free markets, and partnership with the West. Now, as this vision disintegrates, mutual disillusion and recrimination are, inevitably, setting in.
What are the key events that have now brought Yeltsin and Clinton painfully down to earth? Last December, Russia's parliamentary elections resulted in 43 per cent of the popular vote going to hardline, anti-Western, anti-reformist parties, and 15 per cent to the one pro-government reformist party.
In response to this earthquake of voter rejection, the already weak Yeltsin administration soon decided that, to have any chance of survival, it must change course. First it resolved to guard against the danger of being overthrown, by intensifying its preparations for authoritarian rule. Then it signalled it was abandoning the 'market romanticism' of striving for macro-economic stabilisation with assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Finally, it decided to continue making Russia's foreign policy more assertive - if mainly in terms of rhetoric - in the hope of undercutting the appeal of the ultra-nationalism of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The US government digested these Russian shifts in the wake of Clinton's eye-opening visit in mid-January to Moscow, Kiev and Minsk. Then it made counter-shifts of its own, implicitly recognising that its previous policy of uncritical support for shock therapy and Yeltsin had failed. In early February it quietly decided:
To stop pressuring the IMF to relax the conditions the IMF had placed (with Moscow's agreement) on its aid to Russia.
To stop playing Russian politics in risky and often, as it turned out, counterproductive ways in attempts to shore up Yeltsin.
To modify the policy of encouraging Russia to play policeman in neighbouring countries, by warning it to do this only if those countries agreed, and only in accordance with international norms.
To become more positive towards the efforts of East European countries to join Nato, and, by the same token, to become less accommodating to Russia's opposition to these efforts.
And finally, to step up assistance to selected East European countries regarding not only their security, but also their economies.
These US shifts - if pursued purposefully - have a clear and common-sense logic to them. Taken together, they move the Russians from being the most highly favoured of the countries beyond the old Iron Curtain to being - though still a major recipient of aid - only in the second rank. Consequently, as the shifts become more visible to Moscow, an increasingly defensive Russian government is likely to escalate its already growing criticism of America and the West.
Recently the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, declared that 'the mechanistic transfer of methods of Western economies to Russian soil does more harm than good'. Then his first deputy Oleg Soskovets complained that international organisations were exerting political pressure on Russia even though they had, as yet, provided 'no tangible aid'. Finally, on 27 January, the foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, rejected some Western criticism, and warned tartly that Russia 'will not listen to (the West's) lessons and lectures'.
Recriminations of this sort are exchanged not only between Russia and the West, but also between warring factions on either side who are keen to offload responsibility for the Russian debacle on each other. In the US, for example, Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University is arguing with Michel Camdessus, head of the IMF. Sachs, a leading proponent of shock therapy for Russia, accused the IMF of incompetence and of not really wanting the therapy to succeed. Camdessus indignantly rejected the charges as being unfair and untrue.
As long as Yeltsin remains in power, Russian-American relations are not likely to break down. The government will still wants whatever economic and political support it can obtain from the West. And Russian foreign policy will probably be more troublesome for its rhetoric than for its effect. But if Yeltsin is removed from the scene, worse clashes could lie ahead.
This brings me to some really uncomfortable, though inevitable consequences of the new, cooler character of Russian-Western ties. Yeltsin and his allies will be weakened. And Russia will become even more unstable than - following the incipient civil war of last October - it is today. Already Yeltsin is taunted by hardliners that he is too cowardly to keep his promise to stand for re-election this June. But from now on they will crow, louder and louder, that his whole strategy of relying on the West has failed. They will remind him of their constant warnings that the West was never sincere about its aid, that its real aim was to break up the USSR and then to humiliate and impoverish Russia. They will have fresh ammunition to use against him from the city and regional elections that have just begun, which are likely to be an even greater disaster for reformers than were the national elections.
Unfortunately, Yeltsin himself has been contributing to the growing instability. Apart from angering the parliament by his often dismissive attitude to it, he has become increasingly erratic in his general behaviour, saying one thing (especially to foreign leaders) and doing another, disappearing from Moscow for days on end, failing to resolve urgent matters quickly, and ignoring others. He is now thought to be suffering from depression as well as excessive drinking and a heart problem. The executive that he heads is both permeated by corruption and chaotically organised.
Instability also stems from the deteriorating economy. Here the scourge of hyperinflation now appears imminent, with Zhirinovsky and other demagogues poised to exploit it politically to the hilt. Finally, the strong centrifugal forces operating in Russia also work against stability. One minister sees the weakness of the rouble leading this year to regional conflicts involving economic separatism and the primitivism of inter-regional barter.
Yeltsin is taking steps to counter this instability. He is systematically trying to take the main levers of power into his own hands, with the apparent aim of securing his own position and adopting a more authoritarian style of rule. He has increased his control of the media, divided the state security organs into separate agencies and subordinated them to his apparatus, and plans similar action with the police and the military. He has purged the government of most of its reformers and moved to increase curbs on political parties.
All this said, I do not believe that either Yeltsin, or the increasingly independent and self-assertive Chernomyrdin, or the leader of a future coup, will succeed in imposing an authoritarian order on Russia over the next year or two. The forces of public order are too weak, divided, and demoralised, and the regional leaders are too jealous of their newly won autonomy, for such attempts to succeed.
Western governments, blinded by illusory hopes, have woken up very late to the disturbing forces at work in Russia and most of its neighbours. They have begun to move their policies in more realistic directions. Now they have no time to lose in planning for worse storms that are, I fear, already looming.
The author is professor of political science at George Washington University, Washington DC.
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