WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration played down the threat to Russia's embattled President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday, citing his resourcefulness in the past and saying Moscow's political scenario had yet to play itself out.
President Clinton said Mr. Yeltsin "is leading the country that is trying bravely" to bring in reforms.
"That's a tough job. I intend to do what I can to be supportive of that process and to be supportive of him while he serves as president of Russia. I don't know what else to say. I'm not a seer. I don't know what's going to happen to him -- or to me -- tomorrow," he said.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, at a photo opportunity, said: "It's a very dynamic situation, but we are acting to try to help the president maintain his situation. . . .
"We're doing all we can to support him because we think that he is the best opportunity the United States and the world has for the encouragement and preservation of democracy and a free-market situation there."
Mr. Christopher noted that, "at rock bottom, of course, this is a problem that will have to be resolved within Russia."
But while moving ahead full-bore on a package of major assistance measures, officials are being forced to examine what options they have if Mr. Yeltsin loses power.
"We strongly support President Yeltsin. We think he's a determined leader. We think he has a chance to succeed," Mr. Christopher told Congress Tuesday.
"Of course, we have a political situation now in Russia with some relics of the past supporting a different policy, and it would be only prudent for us -- it would be foolish for me to say that we . . . are not considering various alternatives," he said.
U.S. officials described as unlikely the possibility that Mr. Yeltsin might resort to undemocratic emergency measures to resolve the current political crisis.
In a recent letter to President Clinton, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl reported on a conversation with Mr. Yeltsin in which the Russian leader said he might be compelled to introduce emergency measures, such as dissolving Parliament.
A senior official, in a session with reporters Wednesday, refused to speculate on how the United States might react if Mr. Yeltsin veered from the democratic path.
But it was significant that repeated statements of support for Mr. Yeltsin, from Secretary Christopher and others, noted that he was considered the best hope for progress of democratic and market reforms.
In a gentle way, the United States was reminding him that the basis of America's solid support was Mr. Yeltsin's oft-stated commitment to democratic principles.
At the same time, the administration is prepared to take a broad view of Russian moves toward democracy, which an administration official pointed out that nation hasn't experienced before in its 1,000-year history.
In addition to mapping assistance plans to be discussed during the Clinton-Yeltsin meeting April 3 and 4 in Vancouver, the administration is working to prepare for an early high-level meeting of all the industrial democracies, perhaps at the level of foreign and finance ministers.
A meeting of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized countries in Hong Kong this weekend will add to its agenda the question of urgent assistance to Russia. The meeting of deputy finance ministers was planned to prepare for the Tokyo summit of G-7 leaders in July.
The administration is considering ways the World Bank and International Monetary Fund can ease up on their lending restrictions to free some of the billions in loans earmarked for the former Soviet Union; adjustments on existing Russian debt, and aid carefully directed to particular sectors of the economy.
Officials are also trying to prepare free-market assistance that will make a visible impact on the Russian people of the benefits of continued reform. One official cited as an example the Moscow McDonald's.