Dangerous spectacle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 January, 1994, 12:00am

RUSSIA'S new parliament, the Duma, presents a dangerous and unedifying spectacle. Former communists and neo-fascists combine to challenge the authority of President Boris Yeltsin. Pro-government legislators are compelled to prove their ''strength'' by leaving the parliament without a quorum. Such is the brave new democracy which Mr Yeltsin has forged out of the ashes of the old legislature he put down with such violence last year. It does not bode well for Russia, its worried neighbours from the former Soviet empire or its relations with the West.

Mr Yeltsin has armed himself with a constitution that allows him to rule by decree when necessary to avoid chaos. But for Mr Yeltsin - and more frighteningly in the case of his potential successor, the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky - those powers raise the spectre of dictatorship and expansionism.

So far, however, Mr Yeltsin has been conciliatory, calling for civilised dialogue and urging his opponents and supporters to work together for peace, stability and the integrity of the country. The danger will come when the opposition insists that co-operation can occur only on its own terms. If, to retain popular support, Mr Yeltsin is forced to back down on economic reform and adopt some of Mr Zhirinovsky's belligerent, anti-Western agenda, Europe and its protector, the United States, will have to reassess their positions. The comforting superiority of the Cold War victors will give way to fear of renewed Russian ambitions. Calls for rearmament, or at least a moratorium in the reduction of NATO forces, are inevitable.

It is into this political minefield that US President Bill Clinton must tiptoe today when he meets Mr Yeltsin in Moscow. He must not add to the Russian leader's unpopularity by burdening him with over-enthusiastic Western support for policies half his people have rejected (thus providing Mr Zhirinovsky with much of his popular backing).

But he must not be too gentle either. America's foreign policy focus may have shifted towards Asia in recent times, but it remains the only global power and retains responsibility for the security of its European Allies. Mr Clinton must make it clear theWest will not tolerate a Russian resurgence in Eastern Europe or the renewal of the old Soviet threat. Appeasement, even to preserve a still-fragile democracy, must not be on his agenda.