US Rethinks Russia Policy Following Yeltsin Victory

IN Washington, Boris Yeltsin's crushing victory over hard-line parliamentary foes is being received with relief - and a sense of unease about Russia's future.

Officials worry that President Yeltsin's use of tank fire against civilians could carry an unavoidable taint, whatever the provocation.

At the same time the road for democratic and market reforms is by no means clear, while power increasingly flows away from chaotic Moscow toward the hinterlands.

The Clinton administration's staunch support during the crisis of recent days has aligned United States policy more closely to Yeltsin than ever. US officials hope that support will help keep Yeltsin clearly on the reform track.

``The thing now is to focus on ... not only a restoration of order, but a reaffirmation of the Russian government's commitment to get on with the process of democratization and to resolve the political differences that clearly exist in the country,'' said Strobe Talbott, ambassador at large and adviser to the secretary of state for New Independent States, at a briefing for reporters.

Some critics complain that US policy towards the ex-Soviet Union has become too personalized.

Ironically, they point out, that's just the charge candidate Clinton made against President Bush's policy of support for Mikhail Gorbachev.

While in the crisis, the US had to stand behind its ally. Now is the time to reach out to other power centers, they say. Yeltsin would have found it much more difficult to move against his foes without the backing he received from such key regions as the Kuznetsk coal basin and Siberian oil fields, where workers stayed on the job throughout the crisis despite threats to strike.

``We need to deal more with new power centers in the regions,'' says Zalmay Khalilzad, a RAND analyst and former top Defense Department official in the Bush administration.

At the same time, the US may have to deal with a Russian military whose political power is increasing. Top generals ordered tanks to fire on their own people in Moscow. Their payment could be a turn toward nationalism in foreign policy, US analysts worry.

Such nationalism was also a part of the appeal hard-line parliamentary leaders had for key segments of their constituency, including ex-communists and the economically disadvantaged. A move in that direction could help Yeltsin co-opt these groups.

``The point at which all this comes to bear is the question of the sovereignty of Russian neighbors,'' says Frederick Starr, a widely published Russian expert and president of Oberlin College.

For many in Russia the top issue in this regard is the status of Ukraine, Mr. Starr notes. They feel that loss of the Black Sea fleet and ports has taken something from Russia that it held for hundreds of years.

Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze has already complained bitterly that separatists in his nation are being abetted by Russian military factions. The US may find it politic to remind Yeltsin of his commitments to let the ex-republics go in peace.

``We have to make it very clear that we respect the sovereignties there,'' Starr says.

Upcoming parliamentary elections in December will show whether hard-line nationalists retain significant electoral support.

Whatever legislature emerges from the voting will have far more legitimacy than its predecessor, which was elected under communist rule, but it won't necessarily be staunchly pro-Yeltsin. Many rural areas remain conservative, and Yeltsin himself has not yet built a strong nationwide political structure.

To Yeltsin, democracy appears for the moment to stop with obtaining the mandate of the people. As yet, it does not include the middle ground of deal-cutting and listening to critics that goes on every day in, say, Washington.

``I do believe Yeltsin wants democracy and a market economy for Russia. I don't think he fully understands what either of those mean,'' says Jeffrey Hahn, a Villanova University professor who has traveled extensively in Russia in recent months.

``So I have a problem when the president of the United States gets up and says 'this man is the salvation of democracy in Russia','' Dr. Hahn continues. ``He may become an impediment.''

In the end, neither Washington nor any other Western capital will have that much to say with what happens in Moscow.

Much of the nervousness in the US stems from watching events happen a world away that carry great import for the future of the US, but which US officials can only influence on the margin.

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