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COLUMN RIGHT/ WALTER LAQUEUR : It’s Yeltsin or the Captives of Yesterday : Those who say America should stay out of Russian affairs can’t be aware of the alternatives.

Walter Laqueur is the author of the forthcoming "Black Hundred: the Rise of the Russian Extreme Right" (Harper / C ollins).

Boris Yeltsin has survived the attempt to impeach him, but the real showdown between the democrats and their opponents is still to come. Is it right to support the democrats? Why get involved in what seems to some an internal Russian conflict?

As a general proposition, it is wise to put one’s eggs into several baskets, but unfortunately, there are no other baskets in Moscow just now. It is certainly not a matter of one particular leader; the issue at stake is freedom in Russia and world peace. The democrats have committed mistakes, but even the greatest political genius could not have evaded a crisis as the result of the unprecedented transition from a communist dictatorship to a market economy. If rich Germany now faces major difficulties, how could it have been different in Russia?

Yeltsin’s real mistake was political: After the failed coup in 1991, he should have dealt harshly with the plotters and their supporters, called new elections and established a political movement of his own. Magnanimity in victory is a great virtue, but August, 1991, was only half a victory. As a result, Yelstin lost much of his influence and now fights for survival against those who want to turn back.

America’s support for Russian democracy has not been overwhelming so far. The White House has yet to send an ambassador to Moscow. President Clinton received Valery D. Zorkin, president of Russia’s Constitutional Court, earlier this month; Zorkin has been a leading opponent of reform. Then there was the initiative to close down the Munich-based Radio Liberty, the only effective instrument America now has in the struggle for Russian public opinion. It is difficult to think of an idea more inappropriate and more untimely.

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Those who favor America staying out of the conflict seem not to be aware of the alternative, which is not surprising. After 1917, only communism attracted attention; the extreme right was ignored. It had been defeated and did not matter. But the far right has had a spectacular comeback in recent years and with the help of the old communist Establishment, it now wants to seize power.

The extreme right is a curious blend of some of the worst features of fascism and Stalinism. In its publications, as in its demonstrations, it displays pictures of Stalin together with those of Hitler. Its emblem is the swastika, but it does not neglect the hammer and sickle. It publishes Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but also the writings of Stalin. Its heroes are Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein; its believers are anti-American, hate Jews, democrats and free masons, among whom, for good measure, they include Boy Scouts, Rotarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe in the craziest conspiracy theories and are firmly convinced that the whole world has ganged up to ruin Russia. For the extreme right, all democrats are emissaries of Satan.

But surely there must be some sane people among Yeltsin’s opponents in Moscow? And isn’t it true that some of them were on the right side of the barricade at the time of the coup in 1991? Yes, and Mussolini was a socialist before he became a fascist. The “centrist” opponents of the democrats are respectable in a way, former party secretaries of the Brezhnev period, former managers in the military-industrial complex, members of the old nomenklatura with no firm convictions but colossal ambitions, some Christian Democrats who have moved from democracy to the fascist camp, some army and KGB commanders.

They are yesterday’s men and they are mortally afraid of losing their last privileges. There are a great many chiefs among them but few Indians; for mass support they need the cohorts of the extreme right, who can get thousands of their supporters into the street. Since an old-fashioned military dictatorship would not work now in Russia, these people are opening the gate to the right-wing extremists. And since the old communist slogans now have little appeal, they have embraced many extreme nationalist slogans to replace Marxism-Leninism.

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These are the issues now at stake in Moscow--not the personalities of Yeltsin, Ruslan Khasbulatov or Alexander Rutskoi. If the red-brown coalition should win, it will mean much more than the end of reform. This coalition stands for the reconquest of lost territories; it needs conflict with the West. Only on the basis of a state-of-siege mentality can the maintenance of a big army and huge military expenses be justified.

In brief, the fate of world peace could be decided in Moscow these days. It is for this reason that another Cromwell is needed to tell an unrepresentative parliament that it is not fit, and that it should now give place to better men.


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