THE strong showing for extreme Russian nationalist and Communist parties in the recent parliament elections here has prompted concerns that Russian foreign policy will take a more aggressive turn.
Those worries are greatest among Russia's neighbors - particularly in former Soviet republics such as the Baltic states or Ukraine, but also in Poland and other Eastern European countries - who fear a revival of Russian imperialism.
``If Russia is democratic, Europe will be calm,'' Dmitro Pavlychko, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament foreign affairs commission told the Interfax news agency. ``However, if Russia seeks domination, this will provoke fear among the new states and strengthen their aspiration to join NATO.''
Russian officials insist such concerns are unfounded, or at least premature. ``There are no reasons to predict changes in the country's foreign policy,'' Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told the daily newspaper Rossiya on Dec. 23. ``The foreign policy of Russia is shaped by the president. Fortunately, the president will remain in office.''
Russian Foreign Ministry officials suggest there is a deliberate effort to overplay the import of the elections. ``Some people in some countries are prepared to exploit any opportunity as an additional argument to immediately join NATO,'' a Foreign Ministry official says. Indeed, the issue is likely to be on the agenda of a NATO summit on Jan. 9.
Some observers argue that Russian foreign policy had already changed in a more assertive, nationalist direction well before the Dec. 12 election. They point to the actions of Foreign Minister Kozyrev, long considered one of the most pro-Western figures in the government but whose tone has toughened considerably in recent months.
Previously, there was the image that ``everything Kozyrev touches turns American,'' says Alexei Pushkov, deputy editor of the liberal weekly Moscow News. ``Now Kozyrev understands that he has oversold the American link of our foreign policy. He's trying to go back, and he's doing it as clumsily as he played the American card.''
Parties favoring Kozyrev's ouster are going to have a strong voice in the new parliament. But Mr. Pushkov predicts he ``will survive because if [President Boris] Yeltsin fires him, it will be taken as proof that hawks, extremists, have taken over in Moscow. But Kozyrev will be forced to play the card of toughness.''
A touchstone of that approach is the treatment of the Russian-speaking minorities in the former Soviet republics, a favorite issue of extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. ``Russia will take very tough measures in this connection,'' Kozyrev told Rossiya, ``in spite of the immutability of our strategic foreign policy.'' At the 12-nation Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan, this weekend, Yeltsin presented a proposal to guarantee the rights of minorities, which would have given ethnic Russians living outside Russia special status, but it was rebuffed by other republics.
More broadly, the Russian government seeks to maintain its military presence in former Soviet republics, both as border troops and in carrying out ``peacekeeping operations'' to cool regional conflicts in places such as the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Meanwhile, Kozyrev will likely underline Russian opposition to the extension of NATO membership, which he has argued would isolate Russia and draw new lines of confrontation. Instead, Kozyrev calls for a new, all-European security structure to counter the threat posed by ``aggressive nationalism,'' which encompasses the war in Bosnia as well as conflicts in the former Soviet Union.
Under the umbrella of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), Russia proposes that NATO and the 12-nation commonwealth coordinate in carrying out ``peacekeeping operations.''
The Russians have been mildly favorable toward an American proposal, the ``Partnership for Peace,'' which seeks to postpone the issue of expanding full NATO membership by offering transitional forms of cooperation.
The main thrust of Russian policy appears aimed at gaining the permission of the CSCE or the United Nations for its own intervention into former Soviet republics such as Tajikistan or Moldova. ``The Western countries understand that besides Russia, practically no one is able to send its troops to the hot spots around Russia in order to settle those conflicts,'' the Foreign Ministry official says. ``From this stems the special legitimate role Russia is playing in those conflicts.''
But the Russian notion of peacekeeping is far from universally accepted. Kozyrev's attempt to get the CSCE to formally agree to this concept at its Rome meeting was thwarted by opposition, particularly from several former Soviet republics.
``We are not against the participation of Russian peacekeepers, under UN auspices, in Africa or Latin America,'' says Ukrainian Embassy official Vadim Dolganov, ``but not on the territory of the former Soviet Union. In one sense, Russia wants to get a carte blanche from the international community for its actions in Central Asia and the Caucasus. But such a formula, if adopted, will pose a danger for us under certain circumstances.''
A glance at the Russian role in Tajikistan, where Moscow is seeking to give a ``blue helmet''' status to its troops, illustrates the complexity of the Russian notion. Russian troops are mostly deployed on the Tajik-Afghan border, performing the same function they did during the Soviet era. Now they are also engaging guerrillas that back a coalition of Islamic and other forces opposed to the current Tajik regime.
Foreign Ministry officials admit the situation is not a standard peacekeeping operation, but claim that they are doing more than protecting Russian interests. ``We are defending the security of Europe against the tide of Islamic fundamentalism,'' a ministry official says.
Such talk encourages the fear that Russia intends to use this concept as a blanket for re-extending its influence outward. Relations with the Baltics are a sensitive point for NATO in this regard. NATO has called for Russia to complete a planned withdrawal of remaining troops in Latvia and Estonia in 1994. But Moscow has linked the withdrawal to the issue of the treatment of the Russian minority, which it says is being deprived of its rights.
``It is high time to do everything possible to nip in the bud aggressive nationalism in the Baltic area, a threat to Europe against which Russia had warned more than once,'' said the Foreign Ministry statement issued on Dec. 23. The statement responded to passage of a Latvian law that restricts the rights of Russian residents to vote in local elections.