WASHINGTON — BY strongly backing Boris Yeltsin in the ongoing struggle for Russian power, the Clinton administration is gambling on a gambler.
Mr. Yeltsin is betting that by stepping outside the bounds of the Soviet-era constitution he can skirt parliamentary foes and push Russia into a new era. US officials, meanwhile, are wagering that the Russian president will remain the reformer he says he is, and will continue to push for democracy and free markets.
In his phone conversation with Yeltsin on Tuesday, President Clinton pressed for assurances that Russia would not slide back into autocracy. Twice Yeltsin responded that through his suspension of parliament and call for December elections ``the pace of reform will increase,'' says a senior United States official who recounted the conversation to reporters.
Yet the US government and the rest of Washington was taken aback by Yeltsin's actions and remains uneasy about his methods. The roots of Russian democracy are shallow and Yeltsin's actions appeared extra-legal, however obstructionist his foes.
Given past backing for Yeltsin and the nature of the opposition, there was probably little else the Clinton administration could do but throw its chips on the Russian president. ``That doesn't mean we should take our hands off our noses,'' says Marshall Goldman, a professor at the Harvard Russian Research Center in Cambridge, Mass.
The reaction of Western allies to the crisis in Russia largely mirrored that of the US. Germany, Britain, Italy, and France issued statements of strong support. Some nations offered words of encouragement but also voiced reservations. ``Abolishing political institutions, even flawed political institutions, in a country with so short a tradition of democracy is fraught with danger,'' said New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon.
THERE is now little doubt that the Clinton administration is clinging as tightly to Yeltsin as the Bush White House did to his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr.Goldman, for one, thinks this embrace of personalities is dangerous. It leaves the US less room for maneuver if the personalities change.
Ilya Konstantinov, leader of the hard-line National Salvation Front, agrees. ``President Clinton made a mistake yesterday,'' he says. ``He should not have supported anticonstitutional actions, whatever good motives stand behind it.''
State Department officials retort that Yeltsin is the only real symbol of popular will in Russia, having won a free election. The parliament and constitution, by contrast, are holdovers from the days of communist rule. They have been actively blocking Yeltsin's attempts to transform Russia. Yeltsin has tried all summer to find less-drastic means of dealing with the gridlock crisis.
The obstructions are there. ``How do you jump over them?'' asks a US official.
Yeltsin's actions come at a particularly sensitive moment for US policy toward the ex-Soviet Union. The Senate is due to vote this week on the Clinton administration's $2.5 billion aid request for Russia and the other former Soviet republics. Some senators have been grumbling about the size of the request in light of US domestic needs.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, a key Senate appropriator who has been critical of the request in the past, says that the vote should go forward. ``We'd be better off getting it passed and at least having the possibility'' of aid, he said on Tuesday.
Strobe Talbott, State Department special adviser on the former Soviet Union, echoed that assessment in congressional testimony just hours before news of Yeltsin's suppression of parliament became public. The pace of privatization in the economy remains strong despite political chaos and the weakness of the ruble, Mr. Talbott said.