Washington, May 7 (RFE/RL) - Yeltsin confidant Aleksandr Korzhakov's suggestion on Sunday that the Russian presidential elections should be postponed -- an idea which Yeltsin has rejected -- raises a disturbing question: who in fact now speaks for the Russian government?
In Soviet times, no one had to guess what Moscow's official public policy was -- there was always a clear party line -- even if everyone had doubts about whether what was said in public actually reflected what Moscow intended.
Now the problem is both different and more serious. Many people claim to speak for the Russian government, but because they say so many and often contradictory things, it is often unclear whether anyone in fact does so.
In one sense, this new pattern reflects the difficulties of Russia's transition to a more open society. Democracies often have trouble in delivering a single message on important issues. But in most successful democratic states, there is at least some sense that statements by the president or other senior officials may be taken as authoritative.
The situation in Russia, however, is fundamentally different. Not only do the president and his officials frequently as now disagree on key issues, but sometimes Moscow officials note that statements by President Yeltsin himself are not to be taken as official policy.
The most famous case of that concerned Yeltsin's suggestion during a visit to Warsaw that Moscow was not opposed to Polish membership in NATO. In fact, Moscow was and is very much opposed.
As a result, the Russian people and others are often left to guess about just what the Russian government is going to do.
While that may give the Russian government flexibility -- after all, various positions can be floated with the appearance of authority and then changed if opposition appears -- such a situation has far more costs for Russia, Russia's immediate neighbors and the West as well.
First of all, the uncertainty about which statements are authoritative and which are not breeds cynicism among the Russian people about both government announcements and the government itself.
After all, if the Yeltsin government cannot decide simple issues and then insist that all officials follow that line in their public statements, why should one trust that government on any other matter? And if the government is so disordered that it cannot do that, why should one either respect it or care how it functions?
Perhaps even more distressing, the absence of a clear public position on issues often causes Russia's neighbors to put the worst possible construction on anything a Russian official may say.
In recent months, various Russian officials and academics have published articles outlining frightening plans for the reimposition of Moscow's control over what some Russians call the "near abroad." Were it clear what Russian government policy actually is and who is authorized to speak for the regime, the former Soviet republics would know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
But because any statement by the least of the academic community could become official and any remark by the Russian president could be subsequently dismissed as unofficial, these countries necessarily must attend to those statements that appear most threatening.
And this absence of a clear chain of command and a clear notion of who in fact speaks for the regime also has negative consequences on Russian relations with Western Europe and the United States.
While it allows the Russian authorities to disown anything that the West protests about, it means that the West can seldom be sure about what Russian policy actually is. And that absence of predictability makes relations more difficult even for those who want to be friends with Moscow.
Consequently Korzhakov's suggestion will have a negative impact on Russia and the West even if as seems likely it is never carried out.