Eastern Europeans Eye Russia Warily


Prague -- As final returns from Russia's elections became available Thursday, Central Europeans breathed a sigh of relief but still expressed concern about the rise of nationalism on their eastern flank.

The right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky had not fared as well as had been believed from partial election returns earlier in the week. The later counts alleviated some of the anxiety in the region.

Nonetheless, politicians and pundits in Central Europe remain troubled by developments in Moscow, even if Mr. Zhirinovsky party does not end up with the largest bloc of seats in the Russian Parliament. The strength of Mr. Zhirinovsky showing indicates deeper ills in Russian society that could destabilize nations formerly under Soviet dominion.

"If the extreme right and the Communists receive real support, that is quite a matter of concern for our region," said Andras Toth, foreign affairs adviser for Hungary's Alliance of Free Democrats party. "A government with racist and xenophobic and extreme rightist ideas would be quite difficult for us to work with."

In Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics, many are concerned about statements Mr. Zhirinovsky has made calling for the re-establishment of the Russian Empire. Poles, especially, are discomfited by Mr. Zhirinovsky proclamations that Russia and Germany should share a border, as was the case before 1918, when what is now Poland was partitioned by Moscow, Berlin and Vienna.

"This is so outrageous that it is very difficult to find a reaction that would do justice to this kind of statement," said Dawid Warszawski, a commentator for the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza. "We do not fear a Russian invasion -- we don't think anything like that is in the cards -- but having badrelations with Moscow, that's bad enough."

In the wake of the success of both the right and the left in the Russian elections, many in the region called for rapid integration of Central European nations into NATO -- an idea to which the West, especially the United States, has been cool until now.

"Even the reform government [in Russia] has been very hesitant to allow this part of the world into NATO or other Western structures," said Jozsef Szajer, parliamentary leader of Hungary's Young Democrats party. "If this Parliament gains more strength than the president, that would mean very bad things for our region."

Poland's Warszawski agreed that the results will step up calls for some of the former Soviet Bloc nations to be allowed to join NATO, but he said it was unlikely that the Russian elections would sway those in the West who oppose an eastward extension of the organization's security umbrella.

"This is an obvious reason for Poland to be admitted into NATO as a security guarantee," Mr. Warszawski said. "But for our Western partners, it's a reason for us not to be admitted, because they don't want to irritate the Russians."

In Germany, meanwhile, concern over the rise of the right wing in Russia does not stem from fear of eventual hostile actions that Moscow might take, since for now, at least, Mr. Zhirinovsky appears to want to remain on friendly terms with Germans. Indeed, it is this friendship -- directed largely toward Germany's own right-wing nationalists -- that is most worrisome.

"This might encourage extreme right-wing forces in this country who are unfortunately getting too strong already," said Klaus Wilczynski, a commentator with the Berlin daily Berliner Zeitung. "This might be an impulse for them."

With Soviet domination not yet five years gone, and World War II still close enough for millions in the region to remember, many here sought signs of something positive in the election results. Czech President Vaclav Havel, for example, said that while Mr. Zhirinovsky strong performance was "a matter of concern for Czechs," his disquiet was tempered by the simultaneous approval of the new Russian constitution.

"The fact that the constitution appears to have been approved gives hope that democracy in Russia will manage to defend against any eventual escalation in extreme nationalism," Mr. Havel said in an interview with the Czech News Agency.

Writing in the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, commentator Jiri Doubrava said he also found some hope in Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's success in winning passage of the constitution -- not because the vote indicates any will for democracy among the Russian people, but rather because it allows Mr. Yeltsin to overrule just about anything the Parliament does.

The constitution "puts practically all power in the hands of Russian President Yeltsin," Mr. Doubrava wrote. "The Parliament can approve laws, but it will have only minimal possibilities of reprisal in the event the government declines to respect its will."

The Prague daily Lidove Noviny, on the other hand, called Western support for the new constitution "a game of Russian Roulette." The constitution, wrote commentator Josef Pokstefl, lacks the checks and balances needed to rein in a maverick president -- which seems dangerous enough when the president is Boris Yeltsin, and could be downright suicidal if the presidency were to pass into the hands of a man like Mr. Zhirinovsky.

"The control functions that the Parliament has toward the government, which are a pillar of democratic systems, are practically negated" in the constitution, Mr. Pokstefl wrote. "It will depend on Boris Yeltsin, or eventually his successor, whether he will govern like a democrat or a dictator."

David Rocks is a free-lance writer based in Prague.

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