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How Yeltsin Set the Trap for His Rightist Critics : Russia: Through a series of foreign-policy actions, the president bolstered his credentials as a tough but fair champion of Russia's interests.

September 26, 1993|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner is a professor of Russian history at Ohio University. He is working on a book about Soviet relations with the West during World War II.

ATHENS, OHIO — The confrontation between Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and the remnants of the old Soviet-era Parliament has abruptly refocused attention on the continuing crisis of authority in post-communist Russia. Although events in Moscow are certainly critical, they obscure the fact that developments in more distant regions may help to determine the outcome.

In the period leading up to Yeltsin's decree dissolving Parliament, subtle changes in Russian foreign and domestic policies were unfolding. Yeltsin continued to reassure Western countries and Russia's former East European client states of his benevolent intentions even as he adopted a much stiffer line toward what Russians call the "near abroad." This term refers to those countries, such as Ukraine and the Baltic states, that were members of the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991.

Yeltsin's critics, such as Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the speaker of Parliament, have tried to play the nationalist card against the president. Last week, Khasbulatov accused Yeltsin of following "a foreign policy of national humiliation." "It is not for nothing," he continued, "that they say in the U.S.A. that an investment in Yeltsin is an investment in the security of the United States."

Khasbulatov and his allies have little to lose in portraying Yeltsin as an American pawn. They know perfectly well that, should they somehow prevail in the current confrontation, Western aid would evaporate at once. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that innuendo about malignant foreign designs finds a ready audience among many Russians. For decades, Soviet propaganda portrayed the Western states, particularly Germany and the United States, as being constantly engaged in rapacious intrigues against the Soviet Union.

Such long-fostered fears persist. A recent poll published by the Nezavisimia Gazetta suggests that about one-third of Russians still believe that Western intelligence services are working to destabilize--even dismantle--their country. The shortages and higher prices that plague Russian consumers can be conveniently blamed on malign foreign influence, as well as the market system, also derided as a Western import. The sharply increased presence of foreigners, whose wealth and privileges contrast so visibly with local conditions, is a further irritant.

Most significant, the Russian right has taken up the cause of the 25 million ethnic Russians stranded in non-Russian republics following the dissolution of the Soviet empire. They point to the new nationality laws of such revived states as Estonia as proof both that Russians abroad are being oppressed and that Yeltsin is not doing enough to protect them.

It is important to stress that most Russians are not apparently swayed by such fear-mongering. Yeltsin still towers above his rivals in approval ratings, and most Russians reject as ludicrous the xenophobia of the right. But enough people are susceptible to provide demagogues such as Khasbulatov with combustible tinder. So, in the face of such nationalist attacks, Yeltsin shows a great deal of political courage by persisting in his pro-Western orientation.

To be sure, one reason for doing so is to placate those states that are providing money and assistance to Russia's ailing economy. But Yeltsin has also been forthcoming in ways that cannot be explained by simple economic motives. In his recent tour of Eastern Europe, for example, the Russian president publicly apologized for two great Soviet-era crimes: Josef Stalin's murder of 15,000 captive Polish Army officers in 1940, and Leonid I. Brezhnev's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

These gestures of reconciliation should surely rank on the same level as the celebrated joint visit of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand to the battlefield of Verdun; they are even more impressive seen in the light of pressures on Yeltsin to be more assertive abroad.

Even more surprising was the favorable reaction of Yeltsin's foreign minister, Andrei V. Kozyrev, and subsequently Yeltsin himself, to the requests of Czechoslovakia and Poland to enter North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Not only did Russia's leaders not object; they even suggested that Russia itself would like to become associated in some as yet undefined way with NATO.

If Yeltsin has courted the West and the newly free East European states, however, he has recently become much more forceful in the "near abroad." He has put the economic screws on Estonia in retaliation for what he believes to be its discriminatory nationality laws that threaten ethnic Russians. At the same time, he sent a conciliatory signal to the Baltics by pulling the last Russian troops out of Lithuania ahead of schedule--apparently a move designed, in part, to show the other two Baltic states what they could expect if they were more tolerant of ethnic Russians.

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