RUSSIA'S ongoing political drama is shaping up as a confrontation between a new force that wants power and an established authority intent on defending its privileges.
In the aftermath of the Dec. 12 parliamentary elections, the antagonist is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the large ultranationalist faction in the new legislature that seeks to restore the Russian empire. The protagonist is President Boris Yeltsin, who casts himself as the defender of Russia's emerging new order.
Still to be determined, however, is what role the West will play. The West's goals for Russia are constant: continuation of market reforms and the maintenance of peace, not only in Russia, but throughout its former empire in Eastern Europe. Still hazy in the eyes of many Western leaders is the best way to achieve these aims, given Russia's recent penchant for pyrotechnic displays in the political arena.
Western decisionmakers are beginning to recover from the shock of the ultranationalists' strong showing in the elections. Mr. Zhirinovsky, whose party won a quarter of the vote, represents a real threat to Western interests in Russia, but the debate over what to do is restricted to a few options. If not Yeltsin...
Many policymakers insist no credible alternative to Mr. Yeltsin currently exists in Moscow. ``If not Yeltsin, then who?'' is the refrain frequently heard here and in other Western capitals.
But to some non-Western observers, such statements sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. The West needs to devote more attention to the issue of Russian and Eastern European security, the observers say, if the Russian drama is to avoid a tragic ending. Yeltsin may not possess the necessary qualities - such as a willingness to compromise and to form coalitions - to pull off the difficult role that awaits him, they say.
``The problem is that the West has never really understood Russia,'' says an Eastern European diplomat based in Brussels.
``Yeltsin promises peace, but there are many different kinds of peace,'' adds a Bonn-based Estonian diplomat. ``There is an imperialistic peace - a Great Russian peace - something that's very different from the peace of democratic countries.''
The West's ability to reevaluate personalities and policy positions is likely to prove crucial in helping maintain stability. But when it comes to Yeltsin, some Western leaders seem unmovable in their opinions. To a great extent, Yeltsin, the personality, appears to loom larger than democracy, the institution.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is perhaps the most steadfast Yeltsin supporter among Western leaders. In a recent interview published by the mass-circulation Bild newspaper, Mr. Kohl spoke against the ``overdramatization'' of recent developments in Russia. The chancellor also pledged the full support of Germany - Russia's largest aid donor - for Yeltsin.
Kohl's unwavering support for Yeltsin is not entirely the product of political calculation, but is also based on a close personal connection to the Russian president, according to an official familiar with the chancellor's thinking.
But that bond - forged between the German and Russian leaders during the process of German reunification - may prove to be an obstacle for German policy strategists. Indeed, behind the scenes, some Kohl aides wonder if Yeltsin has already fulfilled his potential as a Russian leader, a source close to the chancellery says. But Kohl's loyalty to Yeltsin could discourage German efforts to explore alternatives to current policies.
Russian policy is still being hotly debated in Washington, but preliminary indications show that top US officials also are pinning their hopes on Yeltsin. Following a recent Moscow visit, Vice President Al Gore Jr. said the United States will work closely with Yeltsin on Russian reforms.
``The need for close cooperation is obvious,'' Mr. Gore said during a Bonn news conference. Softer reform
The US understanding of cooperation seems to mean approval for Yeltsin's drift from so-called ``shock therapy'' toward a softer reform approach, designed to ease the hardships brought on by Russia's jarring move to a market economy.
Such policies, however, may involve an increase in state subsidies to struggling industry. That could, in turn, fuel highly destabilizing inflation.
For his part, Yeltsin is striving to cement Western support for his rule.
At his recent news conference in Moscow, Yeltsin portrayed himself as the guarantor of stability in Russia, saying that he was ``a president who is against fascism.''
But a policy that emphasizes support for a personality may lead the West to repeat past mistakes, the Estonian diplomat says.
``They have maintained a simple policy,'' the diplomat says, speaking about the West. ``First it was full support for [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. And now they are keeping to the same model in trusting Yeltsin.
``It's true that no one can now see a better person,'' the diplomat continues, ``but the West may misunderstand what motivates Yeltsin. He may not be a `democrat.' Maybe he only wants power.''
Many Western officials prefer to hope for the best from Yeltsin. They play down the authoritarian potential of Russia's new constitution, while Eastern European diplomats view the document's broad presidential powers as a potential threat.
``When you take a long look at the new constitution, it's not such a bad document,'' one Western policy expert says.