WASHINGTON -- As it watches the unfolding political turmoil in Moscow, the Clinton administration is caught between its desire to support President Boris Yeltsin and its concern that he might take authoritarian measures to stay in power.
In strong statements of support in recent days, President Clinton has portrayed Mr. Yeltsin as the best hope for economic and political reform in Russia and has promised to "do what we can" to help him.
But American officials are increasingly uncertain about Mr. Yeltsin's future, and Mr. Yeltsin complicated their thinking last week by telling Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany during a brief stopover in Moscow last week that he might dissolve the Russian Parliament and assume emergency powers to defeat his political opponents.
Mr. Yeltsin had said the same thing publicly. But European officials here said that in private, he asked Mr. Kohl whether the United States and the other major industrialized nations would support him if he were forced to take extra-constitutional action. Mr. Kohl then wrote letters to Mr. Clinton and other heads of state from the Group of 7 industrialized democracies passing on Yeltsin's position, the officials said.
American officials said they did not take Mr. Yeltsin's comments as a direct threat to assume emergency powers, but viewed them as a bargaining move, perhaps intended to heighten concern for his future among his Western supporters. Still, that put the Western powers in an uncomfortable position.
The officials said Mr. Clinton has not responded to Mr. Kohl's letter, and a Western ambassador said: "As far as I know, none of the G-7 have replied to the message. None of us dares to say anything. We all know that the Russian Congress is anti-democratic and unrepresentative, but you can't run around saying 'Let's dissolve Parliament.' "
Mr. Clinton has scheduled a summit meeting with the Russian leader, offered an increase in direct American aid, and called for an early meeting of the Group of 7 to consider new financing for Russia.
But Mr. Yeltsin appears to have suffered a humiliating political defeat that would strip him of much of his authority before he and Mr. Clinton meet in Vancouver next month, putting Mr. Clinton in a situation that in some ways echoed the problem President Bush faced with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
During the campaign last April, Mr. Clinton criticized Mr. Bush for failing to distance himself from Mr. Gorbachev before his fall from power, and a senior administration official said that Mr. Clinton does not want to embrace Mr. Yeltsin too tightly.
"Here is the dilemma we all have. . . ." a senior administration official said. "Obviously, the previous administration got into some trouble for overpersonalizing the relationship, and a lot of people have made invidious comparisons between Bush's support for Gorbachev and Clinton's support for Yeltsin."
But the official added: "There is no way you can divorce Yeltsin as a personality from the state and future of reform in Russia."
Mr. Clinton himself revealed yesterday the difficult choices he faces, when, during a photo session, he praised the Russian leader, then admitted that he could not predict the future.
Asked whether Mr. Yeltsin was going to survive, Mr. Clinton avoided giving a direct answer. He said: "I think that he is the duly elected president of Russia and a genuine democrat -- small 'd' -- and that he is leading a country that is trying bravely to do two things, one, escape from communism into market economics, a world they never lived in before, and second, to preserve real democracy. That's a tough job. Pretty hard to do here.