THE vote in the Russian Parliament to declare the collapse of the Soviet Union illegal and demand its reinstatement was immediately dismissed as 'nonsense' and a 'political ploy' by President Boris Yeltsin. But neither he, nor the new states created by the Soviet collapse, are treating Friday's vote as a joke. The West should not underestimate its significance, either.
The Parliament - or Duma - is dominated by Mr Yeltsin's Communist and ultra-nationalist enemies. For as long as he remains President, it has no power to implement its decisions. And, even if Russia were unilaterally to abrogate the Belovezhsk Agreement which formally implemented the break-up of the old Soviet empire, the decision would mean nothing unless the newly independent republics chose to re-enter a reconstituted Soviet fold.
In many cases, the populations of the states which Russians now refer to as the 'Near Abroad' are deeply and bitterly divided over their relations with the former superpower. Often the division is between native peoples and ethnic Russians moved in by the Tzars and their Communist successors to colonise the empire. But, even in ethnically-close Belarus where the increasingly autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko is most actively pursuing closer ties with Moscow, there would be angry opposition to any attempt by Russia to force the issue.
Short of sending in the troops, Moscow would have no chance of bringing the more independently-minded parts of the Near Abroad back into any union. And as Mr Yeltsin's bloody adventure in Chechnya has shown, sending in the troops would be a costly option for any Russian leader.
The problem, however, is that Russian voters do not seem to see the connection between the deeply unpopular war in Chechnya and the nostalgia felt by Communists and Nationalists for the Soviet Union. Mr Yeltsin's personal stock is low. His main opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, is well ahead in public opinion polls. If, as looks likely, Mr Zyuganov unseats Mr Yeltsin in the presidential election this summer, Russia's bullying of its neighbours is bound to increase.
The realities of power might tame and restrain Mr Zyuganov, but the chances of violent confrontation cannot be ruled out. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian described the Belovezhsk Agreement as having 'saved the peoples of the Soviet Union from developments along the lines of Yugoslavia'.
This was rather ironic, given the ghastly Yugoslav-style war his own country fought with neighbouring Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union fell apart. Nevertheless, it was a valid point. Mr Yeltsin has had only one Chechnya as he tried to keep the breakaway Muslim republic within the Russian Federation. A man like Zyuganov - or, worse, a radical nationalist like Vladimir Zhirinovsky - could soon be fighting a dozen Chechnyas across the former Soviet empire.
The nationalist problem does not end at the borders of the old Soviet Union. The former satellites of Eastern Europe have still less interest in seeing a resurgent Communist Party rise from the ashes of Mr Yeltsin's regime. Already, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and others find their ability to turn to the West severely restricted by a frightened and resentful Russia. NATO is wary of granting them full membership. This is not only for fear of upsetting the Russians.
As mere 'partners for peace', the East Europeans are buffer states which could be useful in case of real conflict. If they become full members, they would have to be defended physically. The heavier cost of that commitment would have to be borne by their richer partners. Nevertheless, it is Russian opposition that is the key factor.
Meanwhile, although Mr Yeltsin has not managed the Russian economy as well as the West would like - or with the ideological correctness Western economists are demanding - he has made a rather better fist of it than could be expected of the reconstituted central planners behind Mr Zyuganov. The West has no interest in an economically struggling regime in Moscow, unable to take its part in world trade and liable to go for nationalist slogans as a way of distracting internal public opinion from its failings.
Mr Yeltsin has been an unreliable, difficult partner. The Russian President is no blessing either to Russia or to the outside world. But the alternatives are much more worrying. His downfall would be a disaster not only for the Russian people and the peoples of the former Soviet Union, but for the international community as a whole.