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Once again, Russian bear emerging from its cave

Published Oct. 6, 2005

We can only wait and wonder what's happening in Russia, whether the blush has gone off its post-Cold War romance with the United States, if we are returning to the bad old days of conflict.

This is because Boris Yeltsin is in big trouble again at home with the very congress he had elected to replace the old one he abolished with cannon fire. And he has responded by stealing the most potent of all weapons from his opposition, Russian nationalism.

In the Bosnia crisis, he reasserted Russia's role in world affairs in a touchy way that could just as likely be bad news as good news for relations the United States has gone out of its way to establish with the new Russia.

In short, the bear is out of the cage. Alarm bells have been ringing from Moscow in the past few weeks and even the past few days.

The latest comes from the Duma, a body, if you remember, that was elected last December under a constitution that Yeltsin himself designed. He intended it to replace the old Supreme Soviet with a more docile and less powerful legislature unable to block him.

His best laid plans quickly went awry. An unholy alliance of former Communists and extreme right-wing nationalists seem to have seized control of the new legislature, which has done little but spit in his eye.

Last Wednesday, it found a loophole in his constitution to use the one power it seems he can't legally veto _ granting amnesty. It simply pardoned both the leaders of the Soviet-style Congress of People's Deputies who tried to overthrow him last October, and the old-line Communist plotters who tried to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

And on Saturday, former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and former parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov simply walked free. Legally, it appears, they can resume their attempts to unseat him at a time when Yeltsin's popularity fades under the impact of "free market reforms."

With them reappears the spectre of a civil war in the world's second nuclear power, and beyond that a Russia that would again be the major adversary.

In his long speech to the Duma last Thursday, Yeltsin hardly mentioned its latest challenge but instead talked law and order to combat the crime and corruption that many see as the hallmark of the free-market reforms urged on him by the West.

He was hardly convincing when he said reform would continue, but subject to Russia's special interests, national character and psychology. "A strong state is needed." In foreign affairs, no more "unilateral concessions."

We now have to see whether Yeltsin can avoid the same deadlock with the new Duma that occurred with the old Congress and what if anything he will do to reverse the amnesty of the former plotters.

Conceivably, the West might have to watch in embarrassment again as its "democratic" partner violates his new constitution just as he violated the old one to get rid of the last legislature.

What also remains to be seen is whether Russia's reassertion of its role in Bosnia is the beginning of a new era of cooperation with the United States and the West generally in bringing some defensible peace in the former Yugoslavia. Or whether it marks a return to another confrontation over the fate of Eastern Europe.

You could easily argue that President Clinton's feeble and often absent foreign leadership helped open the way for Russia's return, for good or evil, to the world stage. But in any case it would have come sooner or later. Allowing Russia to veto the membership of its former satellites in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, remains a big and unanswered gamble.

And has Russia now defanged NATO itself by opposing any and all future air strikes? Along with Russia's future, all this remains to be answered, and it also will partly depend on what now happens in the continued struggle for power in Moscow which the United States can do little to influence.

Finally, there was last week's embarrassing sideshow in Washington with the arrest of a long-sought Russian mole inside the CIA.

One has to be either naive or hypocritical to pretend that the end of the Cold War has ended spying or that even friends don't spy on each other. Washington's indignation last week was tinged with political hypocrisy.

Given the outcry, Clinton may have had to expel Aldrich Hazen Ames' alleged controller. But even if Yeltsin now feels compelled to expel the CIA chief in Moscow, tit for tat, even if the honeymoon is over, it would be terribly wrong to let a sordid spy affair spoil their far more important efforts to cooperate in a changed world.

It was a shock last year when I learned that a young Russian I once regarded as a friend was executed in 1986 as an American spy. It was all the more poignant last week to read that it was Ames who ratted on him.