WASHINGTON -- With evident relief at Boris N. Yeltsin's strong showing, President Clinton and his aides yesterday hailed Russia's election as a democratic milestone that bodes well for relations with the West.
Their upbeat mood resulted in part from the belief that the Russian president's better-than-even chance of re-election would deprive Republicans of a "Who lost Russia?" campaign cudgel that they might have used against Clinton.
Administration officials tempered their reaction, however, by conceding that even if Yeltsin wins, U.S.-Russian relations face strains as a result of his expensive campaign promises and his need to appeal to supporters of a resurgent nationalism.
But these potential problems shrank next to the danger, apparently averted for now, of a return to Communist rule and an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991.
Leading the optimistic administration reaction, Clinton opened a session with a White House reporters by declaring, "This is a very significant thing for Russia to have this election.
"The Russian people are to be complimented and the Russian leadership is to be complimented for supporting the constitution and the elective process," said Clinton, adding that he planned to call Yeltsin.
The Bill-and-Boris camaraderie over the past 3 1/2 years and the administration's obvious preference for Yeltsin over his rivals had opened the administration to charges of pegging its policy toward Russia too much on personalities.
In a hint of the campaign debate to come if Yeltsin were to lose, Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee, said in a statement Saturday that U.S. policy toward Russia should be based less on individuals and more on "realism" and "our interests and our values."
A poor showing by Yeltsin would have allowed Republicans to cite a pattern of electoral setbacks for Clinton overseas. In the recent Israeli elections, his obvious favorite, Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, was defeated by the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
While some fear remained that Yeltsin could lose to the Communist challenger, Gennadi Zyuganov, in the runoff, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Thomas F. Pickering, said in a television interview: "I felt for a long time that in a runoff between Mr. Zyuganov and Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Yeltsin would continue to have the edge. I haven't changed that view."
A Yeltsin victory would be "a good thing" for U.S.-Russian ties, officials said. Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated confidently that U.S.-Russian relations would continue to focus on military and foreign policy cooperation and on encouraging domestic reforms inside Russia.
But while U.S. policymakers were pleased by the apparent absence of fraud in the election, "people wish Yeltsin had legitimately won by a greater margin," said an administration official. "The closeness could increase the proclivity among some [in the Yeltsin camp] to do bad things" -- up to and including cancellation of the runoff.
Among nongovernment analysts, some were cheered by the fact that the Communist Party had not increased the level of support it registered in last year's parliamentary elections.
But Marshall I. Goldman, of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian Studies, said that if he were a U.S. policymaker, "Right now I would have butterflies in my stomach" since close to two-thirds of the Russian electorate voted against Yeltsin despite the lopsided media support he enjoyed and his advantage in campaign money.
And no one could predict how Yeltsin, who is widely believed to periodically abuse alcohol, would govern if reelected.
"Yeltsin's history is to rise to the occasion in crises and battles" and then slide back into "torpor and lassitude," notes Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Yeltsin already has replaced a reformist foreign minister with a diplomat from the Soviet era, Yevgeny Primakov, and may have to tack further toward the nationalist right wing in foreign affairs, said a State Department official.
To gain extra votes, this official noted, Yeltsin may have to strike a deal that gives the law-and-order candidate, retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, control of the "power ministries" -- defense, interior and the spy agencies.
And analysts agreed there is no way for Yeltsin to redeem some of his campaign promises without busting Russia's budget and running afoul of the International Monetary Fund, which has promised to loan $10 billion to advance economic reforms.
Breaking those promises, however, will cause problems with farm and coal miner blocs in the Russian Parliament, undermining Yeltsin's overall political strength, said Thane Gufstafson of Cambridge Energy Associates, which tracks the Russian economy.
Pub Date: 6/18/96