Yeltsin's Russian puzzle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 1995, 12:00am

BILL CLINTON'S other major bilateral meeting this week was with Boris Yeltsin, but it did little to clarify the future into which the Russian president is leading his country and what this means for the rest of the world.

The uncertainty may be inevitable given the scale of change in the old Soviet empire. Its fragmentation has brought civil and ethnic conflict, one of which, the Chechen rebellion, came close to destroying relations between Moscow and Washington. In the end, Russia's attempts to reassert hegemony over its 'near abroad' went virtually unchallenged.

But it illustrates Mr Yeltsin's patchy record on relations with the West, democratic development, the economy and control of the military. The hardships of ordinary Russians boosts anti-democratic forces. Yet, as the summit showed, he can muster Western support while hope remains for political and economic development.

But his limited co-operation with the West is still rooted in Russian self-interest. Though Moscow will be involved in Bosnian peace-keeping, it will not work under NATO and is cautious about East European nations joining NATO.

In the longer term, Russia's perceived interests, already at variance with the West's in Bosnia, could diverge sharply elsewhere. The Cold War is over. But the uncertainty is greater than ever. It is in the interests of his own people - as well as the world - for Mr Yeltsin to develop a clearer style of leadership if, that is, he is to remain in power.