WASHINGTON — The United States and its allies are relieved by Boris Yeltsin's slim first-round electoral victory. But the West is still worried about Russia's direction after a presidential vote that revealed deep fissures in the nation's society and a longing for a tougher stance toward the rest of the world.
If nothing else, say analysts, the West should be ready for some harsh words coming out of Russia in days to come, as both Mr. Yeltsin and Commmunist challenger Gennady Zyuganov attempt to appeal to key nationalist-oriented swing voters.
Whether the words presage a more assertive Russia after the second-round runoff - whose outcome could affect President Clinton's own bid for a second term as well as US strategic interests - remains to be seen.
" 'We are Russia, you can't push us around.' That's the kind of rhetoric we're going to get," says Keith Bush, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Still, the overriding sense among US officials following Sunday's voting was that the worst-case scenario had been avoided. Only months ago, Yeltsin seemed set to lose to the candidate of a resurgent Communist Party; now he's well-positioned for the vote's final round. Furthermore, the Russian vote wasn't marred by cries of fraud. If it was not exactly fair in the Western sense, what with the incumbent's obvious influence over mass media political coverage. It was nevertheless an historic occasion for a country whose tradition of democracy is shallow.
"It was a good process for Russia," says a senior US official. "Now they need to get on with it for the second round."
Other US officials even saw benefit in the fact that the race was close. Yeltsin supporters will now be energized for the final vote, they say. Sunday's low turnout in major metropolitan areas - Yeltsin strongholds - may not be repeated next time around.
"Some of us worried that Yeltsin might do too well at the end, causing his supporters to head for their dachas and ignore the July runoff," says a US official who specializes in the region.
That Yeltsin was the West's preferred candidate, despite his erratic behavior and the Chechen war, was obvious from the campaign's start. For months, US officials have been saying that the presidential choice was Russia's to make - but they've been adding that a reversal of privatization and other economic reforms, per Zyuganov vows, would likely result in a virtual end to the country's international aid.
And Yeltsin looks set to widen his victory margin in the runoff. Most US analysts expect him to win over the votes of third-place finisher Alexander Lebed, a retired paratroop general, as well as those of fourth-place reformer Grigory Yavlinsky. Zyuganov, by contrast, may have few options for expanding his electoral base.
Whether this means that real Jeffersonian democracy has come to the land of the czars is another question. Two-thirds of the population voted against Yeltsin, after all. Exit polls showed that only a small slice of voters wanted "democracy as it is" for Russia's future course of government. The overriding issue was the turmoil caused by continuing social and economic reform.
"In the runoff I think Yeltsin will still win, but the vote is certainly a sign of enormous disquiet," says Marshall Goldman of Harvard University's Russian Research Center. The US must live with a Russian population that doesn't believe in everything the West does, says Dr. Goldman. Russians' ideas of "freedom" and "democracy" may be more limited than those of the West.
"It doesn't mean we're going back to the cold war. It does mean we're going to live with a country in turmoil for a while," he says.
NOR should relief at the fact that Reds don't appear likely to retake the Kremlin blind the US to Yeltsin's faults, other analysts say. In Chechnya, in Russia's opposition to expansion of NATO, in the return of closer Russian relations with Iran, Cuba, and Iraq, signs of an assertive Moscow foreign policy may be reappearing.
The outcome of the first-round vote "involves a significant turn towards an increasingly nationalist and authoritarian regime in Russia," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter. At most, half the Russian vote reflects a yearning for democracy, he says. The other half - spread among Zyuganov, General Lebed, and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky - may reflect a continued desire for authoritarianism.
"This means we will have to pursue our policies on the basis of a clear definition of our national interests and not on the basis of romanticism," says Dr. Brzezinski.
The White House, for its part, was clearly relieved that the specter of "who lost Russia?" becoming an important question in the US fall elections seems to be receding. Spokesman Mike McCurry hailed Sunday's vote as "clearly a milestone for Russian democracy."
* Staff writers Faye Bowers, Robert Marquand, and Daniel Sneider contributed to this report.