Clinton's stake in Yeltsin's fate


American attention is suddenly focused like a laser not on squabbles over the domestic economy, which in context seem almost parochial, but on a genuine constitutional crisis in Russia that threatens to increase world instability.

President Boris N. Yeltsin's fight to retain power or, as he would put it, to preserve democracy is a struggle that far transcends the boundaries of his huge country. It is a political battle with global implications for nuclear arms control or proliferation, for free markets or command economies, for national cohesion or further unraveling into the ethnic-religious-ideological rivalries that have erupted with the end of the Cold War.

In this struggle, U.S. self-interest clearly lies in measured support for Mr. Yeltsin. He, more than any other figure on the Moscow scene, has a legitimacy anchored in democratic election to office -- the only popularly chosen leader in 1,000 years of Russian history. Yet this is a showdown whose outcome only Russians will determine. And for this reason, the Clinton administration has to be prepared to deal with whomever emerges out a bewildering array of parliamentary maneuvers, command decrees, court decisions and -- with luck -- a popular referendum on April 25.

It could be that Mr. Yeltsin (assuming he does not prevail) will be succeeded by a leader who is able to cooperate with Washington as easily as he himself replaced the one-time U.S. favorite, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But this is something President Clinton cannot take for granted. There are xenophobic, regressive, nationalist, communist forces loose in Russia that could form a government distinctly more hostile not only to the United States but to neighboring former Soviet republics with nuclear weapons stocks and Russian minorities. Thus, the seeds of conflict or downright catastrophe are present.

Given this threat, given Mr. Clinton's own hopes for U.S. economic revival in a genuine peacetime economy, the United States has a real stake in Mr. Yeltsin's survival. To that end, the administration must assume world leadership in a credible economic assistance program symbolized by the scheduled Clinton-Yeltsin summit in early April.

This could be a defining moment in the new American president's entry on the global stage. It will require all the vision and courage he can muster, not just in pursuit of strategic objectives but in enhancing his image at home, where his foreign policy record, until now, has been decidedly mixed.

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