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The Russian Duma's Dangerous Vote

Washington, March 18 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Duma's vote last Friday to annul the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union will have explosive and divisive consequences for Russia, her neighbors, and the West, as well.

The vote itself, of course, has no particular legal standing. Yeltsin has said he won't sign it -- he dismissed the measure as "scandalous" -- and even if he did, there is no way that the Duma could enforce its decision. But this latest parliamentary maneuver should not be ignored.

It reflects the views of an increasing number of Russians, the strength of the alliance of communists and nationalists relative to the reformers within the Russian political system, and, whatever his words on Friday, Yeltsin's own recent expressions of regret about the end of the Soviet Union. As a result, the vote has sent shockwaves out from the Russian capital.

The Russian Federation itself will feel the impact most immediately. On the one hand, this latest vote will encourage those who believe that the restoration of the Soviet Union or of some kind of Russian Empire is in fact possible and desirable. Even though this bill will not be signed into law, its passage helps to legitimize an ever more imperialist rhetoric and thus allows some who would not back these ideas in the past to support them now.

On the other hand, this action may energize the reformers by highlighting just what is at stake in the current presidential campaign in Russia. While many Russians might like to have the empire back, public opinion polls suggest that few want to pay the price -- and Chechnya is an indication of just how high that price might be. Consequently, Yeltsin may in the end gain support from what he himself described as an electoral tactic of his opponents.

The vote will have an even greater, if equally divided, impact on the former Soviet republics, the region that many Russians still call "the near abroad."

Some politicians in these countries, including several Ukrainian leaders, already have suggested that the Duma vote, by highlighting actual Russian intentions, could lead to the end of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But at the very least, it will provide grist for the mill of nationalist politicians throughout the region who will point to the Duma decision as confirmation of their fears of Russia.

At the same time, however, some leaders in the former Soviet republics may conclude that they cannot possibly resist expanded Russian pressure and that they now should seek to obtain as good a deal with Moscow as possible before things get even worse.

Several Belarusian officials have suggested that this is their calculation. But because politicians in all the new states are likely to divide on this issue and thus strengthen groups of the left and the right, moderates and centrists will be weakened. And that, in turn, means these states are likely to become more unstable, a development with unpredictable but dangerous consequences.

And finally, the vote will have an impact on the West and its relations with Yeltsin and the Russian Federation. Some in the West undoubtedly will see the Duma's actions as yet another reason why Western governments must do everything in their power to ensure Yeltsin's re-election: providing more aid and restraining any criticism of the Russian President's policies in Chechnya or elsewhere.

But others are likely to read this vote and particularly Yeltsin's inability to prevent it as yet another indication that Russia is quickly slipping back to its old ways, that the West must stop providing assistance to a government certain to threaten the independence of internationally-recognized countries, and that the U.S. and Western Europe should move more quickly to extend security guarantees and even NATO membership to the countries of Eastern Europe.

In each of these three arenas, the balance between these perspectives will be effected by what happens in the other two and will in any case take some time to sort out. But the Duma vote will have one result beyond question: everyone is going to be faced with clear, if more difficult, choices, and no one is going to be able to put them off for much longer.