WASHINGTON -- After two days of uncertain reaction to Russian elections, the Clinton administration moved forcefully yesterday to back Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in the hope that he can unify divided reformers and push the surging ultra-right to the margins.
"I don't see any basis for a change in our policy," said President Clinton, except to "redouble our efforts to support the process of reform."
But as the administration swung firmly behind Mr. Yeltsin and condemned his ultra-nationalist opponent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, it acknowledged that its policy is based at least partly on hope.
"We have a certain faith that reform is going to continue," a senior official said.
HTC That faith will be tested against a Yeltsin record of failing to deal effectively with parliamentary opponents, what Mr. Clinton called psychological damage" among the Russian populace and evidence that the parliament's reformers remain divided.
The administration will also have to cope with growing fears in Eastern and Central Europe about an imperialist revival that Russia has done little to assuage.
Visiting Moscow, Vice President Al Gore harshly attacked Mr. Zhirinovsky, who has threatened Germany and Japan with atomic weapons, made anti-Semitic remarks and called for the creation of a new Russian empire.
"Let me say clearly in behalf of myself and in behalf of our administration and in behalf of our country that the views expressed by Zhirinovsky on issues such as the use of nuclear weapons, the expansion of borders, the treatment of ethnic minorities are reprehensible and anathema to all freedom-loving people in Russia, the United States and everywhere in the world," said Mr. Gore, who refused to meet with Mr. Zhirinovsky.
"If you want a laboratory test of those views, look at Bosnia."
Mr. Gore told the White House that in his meetings with Mr. Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russians strongly reaffirmed their plans for political and economic reform and a pro-Western foreign policy, officials here said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton stressed that Russians had staged a "protest vote" against what he called an "economic free fall," and officials voiced the belief that voters didn't accept Mr. Zhirinovsky extreme views.
"We think this is going to be a decades-long process," a senior administration official said.
White House briefers also said that still-incomplete election returns showed that Mr. Zhirinovsky is far from being able to control the new parliament. The makeup of the upper house is still unknown, they said, and the lower-house makeup gives him and his followers a minority role.
In fact, they suggested that Mr. Zhirinovsky group would be smaller than those of reformers, independents and Communists.
But they admitted that U.S. officials had underestimated Mr. Zhirinovsky popularity with voters, predicting that his bloc would get 10 percent to 12 percent when in fact it got 25 percent.
Some U.S. officials hope that the shock of the election will prod Mr. Yeltsin to unite the reformers, now divided and weakened, into a stronger bloc.
But this may be a tall order. Stephen Sestanovitch, a specialist on Russia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Yeltsin is "going to be called upon to rally support among people who haven't liked him, who still don't like him, and who oppose his program. Yeltsin's not very good at that."
Despite their pledge to redouble support for Russian reform, administration officials admitted they don't have any clear steps in mind and lack money in the budget to underwrite the expensive social safety net that Russian voters seem to be demanding.
Meanwhile, they will have added difficulty in easing the fears of Central and Eastern European states and of Ukraine, which some experts predict may become more obstinate about getting rid of nuclear weapons on its soil.
Poland's foreign minister, visiting Washington, is renewing his plea for Central European states to be incorporated into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, calling his region "a security vacuum."