WASHINGTON -- In a strong signal of support for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, a senior administration official said yesterday that Washington would not oppose a move by Mr. Yeltsin to suspend his parliament or abolish the Soviet-era constitution to put down his political opposition.
But the official said the United States would react strongly if Mr. Yeltsin resorted to military force to keep power in the face of action by the Congress of People's Deputies that could strip him of much of his authority.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Clinton administration did not believe that Mr. Yeltsin would do any of these things, despite his threats to abolish the Congress and impose military rule.
But the official went out of his way to signal that Washington would not withdraw its strong public support from Mr. Yeltsin if he were to assume extraordinary powers.
Although the United States has repeatedly insisted on adherence to democratic procedure in the former Soviet Union, the official said it considered the Congress to be an undemocratic holdover from the Communist Soviet Union and the 1977 constitution to be a meaningless relic of the era of the late Leonid I. Brezhnev.
"If Yeltsin suspends an anti-democratic parliament, it is not necessarily an anti-democratic act," the official said in an interview. "If he suspends an anti-democratic parliament and throws a lot of people in jail, and troops sympathetic to Yeltsin spill blood, that's a different situation. We want what is peaceful and orderly in the furtherance of democratization."
The administration's signal that it would tolerate certain emergency steps by Mr. Yeltsin was immediately criticized by some independent specialists.
"It is absolutely the wrong signal, a very shortsighted position," said Marshall I. Goldman of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University. "The means become the end, and you get sucked in."
President Clinton expressed support for Mr. Yeltsin yesterday, as he has repeatedly done in recent days, saying: "I support democracy in Russia and the movement to a market economy, and Boris Yeltsin is the elected president of Russia. He represents that reform."
Mr. Clinton characterized the move by the Russian legislature to curb Mr. Yeltsin's powers as "a parliamentary dispute" that is "within the bounds of legal authority." He added, without elaboration: "I hope whatever is done in Russia is consistent with that."
Mr. Yeltsin assured the United States yesterday that he was in control, that he was looking forward to the summit in Canada next month, and that he remained committed to "democracy, human rights, and civic order," State Department officials said.
Mr. Yeltsin's message was conveyed by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev in a telephone call to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher yesterday, said State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher.
Mr. Kozyrev also passed on the Russian leader's belief that "people should have the right to express their views through the ballot box, and he would continue to look for a way to give people the chance to exercise their democratic rights," Mr. Boucher said.