WASHINGTON -- Fearing that a seriously ill Boris N. Yeltsin may be forced to give up the Russian presidency, the Clinton administration is now looking past him and focusing its efforts on making sure that democratic reforms endure, officials say.
"People are quite pessimistic" about Mr. Yeltsin's health, said an administration official who follows Russian events closely. "It's beginning to dawn on people that this is the beginning of the end, and we could very rapidly move into a post-Yeltsin period."
Publicly, the administration yesterday played down the significance of Mr. Yeltsin's transfer of some administrative functions to his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.
"It's certainly natural in a case where the president is hospitalized," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman.
Mr. Burns seemed to go out of his way to say that the Russian government was in secure hands despite Mr. Yeltsin's hospitalization for a heart ailment, suggesting that the president was not crucial to the day-to-day operations of government.
"The important thing for us is that we're able to do business with Russia; that we're able to have a stable relationship; that there is a certainty about the actions of the Russian government. And I am happy to say that we are quite convinced that the Russian government is in good hands."
Privately, officials are worried and uncertain over the future of the Russian leadership, and trying to exert America's limited influence in Moscow to make sure that change conforms with democratic processes.
These new worries come at a sensitive time in the Clinton administration's relations with Russia. Despite repeated attempts, the White House has failed to convince the Kremlin that an expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization won't pose a threat to Russia.
In a related problem, the administration is struggling to work out a partnership with Russia in Bosnia. The administration's effort to anticipate the post-Yeltsin era is long overdue, according to some outside analysts.
"The honeymoon is basically over," says Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University. "The administration should prepare people in the United States for the fact that there's going to be a change."
"Yeltsin was just about politically dead before his heart failed," said Stephen Cohen, a professor of politics and Russian studies at Princeton.
Officials voice confidence in Mr. Chernomyrdin and in Pavel Grachev, the Russian defense minister, who has developed a good relationship with his American counterpart, William J. Perry.
As a result, the administration appears nowhere near as anxious as officials were in August and December of 1991, when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev faced a coup, then collapse of his government.
Privately, however, administration officials are frustrated about how little they know about what is happening inside the Kremlin and recognize that Russia and U.S.-Russian relations probably face a particularly difficult period ahead.
Officials say they can't rule out the possibility that Mr. Yeltsin will step aside in advance of presidential elections next June.
U.S. officials have long suspected that Mr. Yeltsin suffers from a binge drinking problem complicated by medication he takes for a back ailment. One official said yesterday that in addition to heart and blood pressure problems, he may have a diseased liver.
During his meeting last week with President Clinton at Hyde Park, N.Y., Mr. Yeltsin drank wine steadily, officials said. People who met with him were divided over how the wine affected his behavior at the time. But his hospitalization has led some officials to suspect that he is now going through serious alcohol withdrawal.
While Mr. Chernomyrdin has shown he has an independent power base, officials worry about the influence wielded by Mr. Yeltsin's close friend and chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov. Korzhakov may be jealous of the control Mr. Chernomyrdin wields over the revenue-producing oil and gas industries, officials say.
"The White House hope is that if Yeltsin is down, Chernomyrdin is coming up," said Mr. Cohen. But he voiced doubt that the prime minister could survive an election.
Outside of Mr. Yeltsin's inner circle, the Russian political scene is even bigger question mark for U.S. officials.
The administration doesn't rule out the possibility that the December parliamentary elections and even next June's presidential elections could be postponed or canceled.
Even if the elections proceed on schedule, the results could be grim for Russian reform and relations with the United States.
U.S. officials cling to the hope that pro-market democrats will retain power, but that appears increasingly unlikely. Some observers, such as Mr. Goldman, believe the Communists could gain a majority.
Mr. Goldman predicts a backlash against free-market reforms, which are seen by many Russians as benefiting the corrupt.
In Russia, he said, "the worst thing is to be called a new Russian, a democrat or a reformer." Growing xenophobia and anti-Americanism in Russia have resulted in the United States and Russia becoming "two unfriendly elephants bumping against each other," he said.