Russian roulette

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 February, 1999, 12:00am

From the Asian perspective, it is easy to see the future in terms of whether China will hit its growth targets, if Japan will finally expand and whether Indonesia surmounts its economic and political problems. But there is another partially Asian country which poses a great challenge to the Year of the Rabbit.

When Boris Yeltsin was forced to cut short his visit to Jordan for King Hussein's funeral, the world was reminded that one of the largest countries, with nuclear weapons and territory stretching from the Baltic to Vladivostok is on the verge of collapse. Mr Yeltsin is clearly in no state to exercise the leadership Russia so desperately needs. His government is marking time, and the spectre of the Communist party remains very much alive, tinged with racism and nostalgia for the old days.

The economy is in a mess. The central bank has been revealed to have placed national reserves in an offshore account. The memory of last year's default is still alive. Trade prospects are clouded by the fall in the price of the country's main export, oil. Conditions worsen by the week. The middle class who were meant to represent a new start under a market economy, are impoverished. There are reports of an air defence arms deal with Moscow's old ally, Iraq, and hopes for Russian-American co-operation on a range of international issues have run on to the rocks.

Last weekend, a group of prominent Russians called for Mr Yeltsin to step down. Whatever his weaknesses, the President has been seen by many - including Washington - as better than anybody who might take his place. That may no longer be true. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov says Mr Yeltsin should not step down - but it may be that Mr Primakov prefers to accrete more power for himself under the failing Mr Yeltsin rather than face a presidential election in which he would be confronted with strong challengers like the Mayor of Moscow or General Lebed.

The departure of Mr Yeltsin and a free and fair election for his successor seems the best way of lancing the Russian boil. It could pave the way for a new IMF loan which the West is unwilling to grant under present circumstances. Mr Yeltsin has served Russia well in crucial stages of its journey from communism, but his continued presence in the Kremlin can only mean more of the same. That would be bad news for Russia and will increase the dangers for the rest of the world.