WARSAW, Poland -- Stepping cautiously onto former Soviet turf, President Clinton began a historic visit to the Baltic states and Poland yesterday with ringing, though largely symbolic, praise for the post-Communist reformers of "the new Europe."
Throughout a day crammed with public and private meetings in two capitals, Mr. Clinton's moves were shadowed by the unseen presence of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, and by an American calculation that Mr. Clinton must do nothing that might aggravate the volatile political situation inside Russia.
The president first displayed his delicate balancing act in Riga, Latvia's capital, where he called on Russia to fulfill its promised complete troop withdrawal from Latvia and reach a similar accord with Estonia, but urged the presidents of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to meet some Russian demands.
"The progress made so far on troop withdrawals provides hope that the new democratic Russia -- unlike the Soviet Union -- can work with the Baltic countries for peace in the region," Mr. Clinton said at a joint news conference with the Baltic leaders.
"I will continue . . . to push in a deliberate and firm way, and to offer all the incentives we can offer to continue the troop withdrawals," Mr. Clinton said.
He said the United States will double the amount of its $25,000 housing vouchers going to 5,000 Russian military officers who areresettling from the Baltics.
To balance his remarks, Mr. Clinton also urged the residents of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to adopt a "tolerant and inclusive approach" toward ethnic Russians living among them. Mr. Yeltsin is trying to link the troop withdrawal to pledges of fair treatment of ethnic Russians.
The last 4,500 Russian troops in Latvia are scheduled to withdraw by Aug. 31, but negotiations continue on the departure of the 2,500 Russian troops in Estonia.
Later, Mr. Clinton flew to Warsaw, where Polish President Lech Walesa, in welcoming remarks, stressed the region's need for "American economic and military presence."
Mr. Walesa's oft-repeated desire to see his country placed under the security umbrella of NATO reflects Poland's long-standing obsession with Russian economic and military domination, a fact of Polish life until recently.
Although Mr. Clinton recently said that discussions about making Poland a full member of NATO could start as early as next year, the United States has resisted setting a timetable, which could be expected to give Mr. Yeltsin's nationalistic political enemies in Russia a powerful issue to use against him.
In a telephone call to Mr. Yeltsin before leaving Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Clinton had briefed the Russian leader on his visit to Latvia and Poland, the first stops on a weeklong European tour that will include talks with Mr. Yeltsin at an economic summit in Naples, Italy.
U.S. officials said the Russian leader took a tougher line on the rights of the sizable Russian minority in the Baltics, one-third or more of the population, and particularly the rights of Russian military retirees.
In Riga, Mr. Clinton walked through the narrow, cobblestone streets and addressed a crowd of 20,000, which had waited hours to hear him speak near the foot of the Freedom Monument, a 146-foot-tall obelisk erected to honor the heroes of the revolution of the 1980s that ended five decades of Soviet domination.
When Mr. Clinton laid claim to being "the first president of the United States to set foot on free Baltic soil," the crowd VTC responded with a loud, spontaneous cheer, even before his words could be translated.
And when he repeated the word "freedom" in the native tongues of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- with the presidents of all three Baltic nations standing behind him on the open-air platform -- the crowd echoed with chants of "Bree-vee-bai" (Latvian for freedom).
Mr. Clinton also urged the crowd to consider the rights of the Russian minority, but there was little response from the Latvians.
"Today, I appeal to you to summon what my nation's greatest healer, Abraham Lincoln, called the 'better angels of our nature' -- to never deny to others the justice and equality you fought so hard for and earned for yourselves," Mr. Clinton said.
"For freedom without tolerance is freedom unfulfilled," he added.
Thousands of Latvians, many clutching American flags distributed by U.S. embassy officials, filled Riga's streets to cheer "Bilu Klintonu," as some banners lining the way spelled his name.
After his remarks, Mr. Clinton plunged into the crowd for a half-hour of hand shaking. He was joined by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is accompanying Mr. Clinton on his third European trip this year, along with daughter Chelsea, 14, and mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham.
In Warsaw, Mr. Clinton, after initial talks with Mr. Walesa on the security issue and the progress of Poland's economic reforms, reported that the Polish president had "said Poland's future needed more American generals -- starting with General Motors and General Electric."
In toasts later at a state dinner, Mr. Clinton called Poland "the birthplace of the new Europe" and Mr.Walesa, the former Solidarity leader, as "the father of that wonderful child."
But Mr. Walesa made it clear that, despite that praise and a modest package of U.S. economic assistance to be announced here today, more concrete commitments would be essential to assure a stable future for a united Europe.
"I would like to see the sphere of democracy and stability expand during your term of office, Mr. President, and not only on paper," the Polish leader said. "Polish people know very well from their past and present experience what paper guarantees are worth."