PRESIDENT Clinton has been criticized on a number of issues since taking office, but one of the least valid complaints is that which has come from some quarters for his support of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Erratic and tempestuous though Mr. Yeltsin may be, his has been a voice for reform and progress in Russia. He is locked in contest with a Congress that would block that movement. Its neanderthal right-wing perhaps may not be able to return Russia to discredited communism, but it might take it back to the dark ages of dictatorship.
A United States president cannot remain neutral in such a confrontation; he must throw his influence and prestige on the side of forces that would nudge Russia in the direction of democracy.
He must do this because it is right. Russians deserve liberty no less than any other people.
A US president must also do this in American self-interest. Russia in quest of prosperity and freedom is far less threatening to the US than Russia narrow and xenophobic.
The critics offer several arguments against bolstering Yeltsin.
One is that American influence is limited. This is true. The Russian people must determine the future of Russia. The US cannot by itself ease Russia's economic woes or force democracy to bloom. But it can encourage and stimulate constructive action; it can come through with some economic aid, persuade others to do the same, and help reschedule Russia's debt.
By summitry in Vancouver, Mr. Clinton can contribute to Yeltsin's international prestige. That costs the United States nothing, but it translates into valuable political capital at home for Yeltsin.
While American influence may be limited, that is no excuse for not using it as effectively as possible.
Another argument leveled against embracing Yeltsin is that he may go off the rails and take some undemocratic action, such as declaring a state of emergency and neutralizing his political opponents. The answer to this is very simple: Clinton should endorse Yeltsin as long as Yeltsin hews to democratic principles. Should Yeltsin become a dictator, then American support should cease.
Some critics of Clinton's pro-Yeltsin posture point to the Bush administration's backing of Mikhail Gorbachev even after it had become clear that the people of the then-Soviet Union had become disenchanted with him.
The circumstances then, however, were very different from the circumstances today. Mr. Gorbachev, although launching many of his country's reforms, had lagged in carrying them forward. He was overtaken by the forces of change, which installed the more daring Yeltsin in office.
The Gorbachev-Yeltsin struggle was between a reluctant reformer and an adventuresome one. Today's struggle between Yeltsin and a conservative Congress is a struggle between the forces of reform and obstruction.
Finally, some critics charge that Clinton has no business boosting economic aid to Russia at a time when he is asking Americans to make sacrifices to solve their own economic problems at home.
The reality, of course, is that Russia in chaos and unpredictable could compound those economic problems.
Much of Clinton's economic plan hinges on being able to make continuing cuts in defense spending. Those reductions might have to be slowed or halted if Russia were dangerous and on the loose again.
Yeltsin may not be everybody's ideal of a world statesman and democratic leader. But the alternatives to him are bleak. We must hope, but cannot be sure, that Russia will follow a constructive path that will eventually place it firmly among the democratic nations of the world.
For now, keeping Boris Yeltsin in place seems to be the best prospect for encouraging that movement.