The worst of all worlds: As Zhirinovsky emerges, Jonathan Eyal argues that the West can have no more Russian love affairs

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THE FINAL distribution of seats in Russia's new parliament, or Duma, indicates that the neo-fascist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky will not, after all, form the largest bloc. Western governments, determined to put a brave face on Russia's electoral debacle, continue to claim therefore that the fundamentals of their policy have not changed. After all, the argument goes, the new constitution has considerably strengthened the president's powers, and as long as Yeltsin remains in control all will be well.

Al Gore, the American Vice- President, representing an administration proud of its Russia policy, last week engaged in the now traditional pastime of a visiting politician - a photo- opportunity in Red Square and meaningless speeches about 'democracy' and 'reform'. However, he refused to meet Zhirinovsky: the West will only talk to the angels. If Western governments persist in such policies, disaster awaits an entire continent.

The similarities between Zhirinovsky and Hitler are startling. Just like the Austrian corporal who claimed to represent all Germans, so the Kazakh-born (and probably ethnically-mixed) Zhirinovsky is consumed by a burning desire to defend all Russians. Like Hitler, he remembers a sad childhood and finds it difficult to lead a conventional family life. And, just like Hitler, Zhirinovsky is good at manipulating his people's frustrations.

Comparisons between Russia today and the Weimar republic go much further. Like the Reich in 1918, the Soviet empire was not decisively defeated in battle; it collapsed suddenly. Having been taught to take pride in their superpower status, many Russians genuinely believe that their country was simply betrayed, first by Mikhail Gorbachev, then by Boris Yeltsin. It was enough for Zhirinovsky to suggest that under his guidance the humiliation of Mother Russia would be avenged; the myth of the 'stab in the back' was powerful in Weimar Germany and it sounds plausible in Russia today.

Nevertheless, Russia and the Germany of the Thirties differ in one important respect. Hitler took over a country with a market economy and a disciplined bureaucracy but, at least initially, relatively small armed forces; Zhirinovsky is seeking to take over a state which has no viable economic infrastructure and a huge military arsenal. No reassurance here: the availability of nuclear weapons will compensate for Russia's economic weakness for many years to come.

It is futile to try to interpret the electoral results favourably. Eighty per cent of those who voted rejected the parties advocating radical reform. Zhirinovsky can still be marginalised in the Duma, but this would make his brand of fascism a viable opposition to the government. The more Zhirinovsky barks from the back benches, the more he is likely to grow in stature; the incoherent nature of his ideology is his greatest asset.

Either Yeltsin co-opts him into government, in which case Russia will hardly be the West's best ally, or the president continues to rule by decree, in which case Russia is unlikely to be a functioning democracy. Chances are that we will see both options at once: a shift to the right in foreign policy and an even greater personalisation of power.

Despite ringing declarations, the West never really believed in the prospects for Russian democracy: it was interested only in maintaining a semblance of strategic stability. Zhirinovsky's rise indicates that the outcome may well be neither Russian democracy, nor European stability.

The West's policy towards Russia is nothing more than a religion, a hope that all will ultimately be well because good intentions are always rewarded with good deeds. Western leaders also believe in monogamy: they tend to contemplate only one Russian darling at any given time. As long as Gorbachev was trying to maintain his empire, Yeltsin was regarded as an irrelevant clown, a drunkard who deserved no attention. The moment Gorbachev went, however, Yeltsin was embraced as the West's new and only hope.

Realities were irrelevant. Russian troops were involved in Georgia and Moldova? Yeltsin could not have known about it. Moscow was demanding a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe? Our dear Yeltsin probably has nothing to do with this, and anyway has some 'legitimate' interests in the region that the West should acknowledge. Those who criticised this policy were dismissed as nuisances, people who could not accept the logic that pulverising a parliamentary building was really a triumph for democracy. In the process, everyone ignored the fact that Russia's politicians were not trying to share power; they were struggling for absolute control. Zhirinovsky is a product of a society from which moderation and toleration are largely absent - neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin did much to promote these virtues. And he has benefited from a great Russian nationalist dream which Yeltsin himself increasingly nurtures.

The West's policy was even more perverse than this, however. Our politicians were charmed by a bunch of sharp- suited 'technocrats', people who promised - usually in English - all the economic reforms the West thought necessary but who ultimately represented only themselves. Grand plans and multi-billion aid programmes were constructed, but little real cash actually materialised, despite a cacophony of summits and partnership treaties.

And the result is the worst of all worlds: the discrediting of the very idea of economic reform - which is now perceived by most Russians as a failure, even though it was never really implemented - and cynicism about the West's intentions. People who have been told for more than 70 years that prosperity is just around the corner can be forgiven for wanting to dream about a predictable past rather than confront a grim future.

What can be done today? The West should start by accepting that, rather like the Ottoman empire at the beginning of this century, Russia will remain the sick man of Europe for a long time. The task is not to put forward a new 'Grand Bargain' which nobody is willing to subsidise but to lay down some workable principles. Isolating Russia will only increase the nationalists' appeal. But appeasing the nationalists at all costs will not help Russia's future either.

Russia's example shows not that economic reform cannot work, but that the painful transition cannot be accomplished without a solid national consensus. Thus, the West should not respond by advocating a slow-down in reforms everywhere but should concentrate on supporting those East European countries that have a realistic chance of success. Enlarging Europe's zone of stability can only be accomplished in stages, and a start must be made by hastening the integration of the East Europeans into both Nato and the European Union. Offers of economic aid for Russia can continue, but they must be coupled with political conditions. No more love affairs; just strategic interests that can be discussed with everyone, including some of the less savoury characters who may gain power.

The challenge that faces us in the coming years will not be a Russian invasion of neighbouring republics. It will result from the internal destabilisation of former Soviet states through a combination of economic warfare and deliberately engineered minority disputes. No fewer than half Estonia's ethnic Russians voted for Zhirinovsky. Western politicians who are prepared to concede Moscow's claim to defend its kith and kin everywhere will fare no better than those who believed that Hitler had a point in seeking to 'defend' Czechoslovakia's Sudeten Germans. Appeasement invites contempt; encouraging a Yeltsin-sponsored nationalism against a Zhirinovsky-sponsored chauvinism is a false choice.

Just as in the Thirties, the West is living in a haze that could lead to appeasement. Defence budgets are being cut on the basis of a non-existent 'peace dividend'. Great plans for collective security, not very different from those of the League of Nations, are now being drafted. And potential dictators are deemed to have 'legitimate interests'. Throughout the Cold War the West planned on the basis of the worst case scenario. Today, policies are based on the best possible outcome: a successful Yeltsin and a prosperous Russia. Western leaders need to be reminded of the slogan that still adorns the Nato Command in Belgium: Vigilia Pretium Libertatis - Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.