FOR the Clinton administration, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is still "the only game in town," as US Secretary of State Warren Christopher put it last week.
President Clinton is standing by his strong support for Mr. Yeltsin as the best hope of more democracy and economic reform in Russia.
Yeltsin's declaration of "special rule" by executive fiat this weekend, stripping the Russian Congress of powers and setting aside the constitution, is virtually indistinguishable from the "presidential rule" that the United States administration has opposed.
But Yeltsin's call for a popular referendum April 25 in which Russians would vote his decrees up or down apparently offers the Clinton administration the reassurance it needs that Yeltsin is still on the democratic path.
The political crisis in Russia raises the stakes in two debates in Washington. One is Mr. Clinton's proposal to about double aid to Russia to $700 million. The other is his proposal to make deep cuts in defense.
For Clinton, supporting Yeltsin has become both more urgent and more problematic. Yeltsin needs international support more than ever, especially economic aid. Russians are increasingly restive about the grim state of their economy.
But his move this weekend was not itself democratic, and it may cost him support in the US Congress. Foreign aid is already more difficult than usual to sell on Capitol Hill because of budget cuts.
The Clinton administration plans to offer Yeltsin an aid package at the Vancouver summit meeting of the two leaders on April 3 and 4.
The fragility of Russian democracy may also heighten concerns in Congress about cuts in the US defense budget. Yeltsin's rivals in the Russian Congress are chiefly old-guard communists and Russian nationalists, and if they seized power relations between the two countries could chill.
That may not mean a return to a cold war, but the interests of the two countries would be more divergent. Many of Yeltsin's foes, for example, feel ethnic ties to the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, while the West backs the Serbs' opponents.
What matters most, Clinton said in a statement Saturday, is that Russia remain a democracy moving toward a market economy.
"That is the basis for a continued US-Russian partnership," the president said. "As Russia's only democratically elected national leader, [Yeltsin] has our support, as does his reform government and all reformers throughout the Russian federation."