US Stands Up for Yeltsin, Despite Worries Over Abridged Freedoms

Christopher: `True democrats have nothing to fear from a free press'

BORIS YELTSIN received visiting US Secretary of State Warren Christopher last Friday at the hunting lodge in Zavidovo that was once a favorite haunt of Communist Party boss Leonid Brezhnev.

But today's occupant of the red-brick Kremlin claims to be cut from a far different cloth. ``We have put the Soviet past behind us and inaugurated a true democracy,'' President Yeltsin was quoted saying by a United States official. ``The only thing that remains is to rebury Lenin.''

Such claims of democratic-mindedness are treated with skepticism by many Russians, as well as Western observers, who point to the abridgments of a free press and other liberties that have followed the bloody clash with anti-Yeltsin rebels earlier this month. For the US, support for Russian democracy remains a political minefield.

For now, Mr. Christopher brought a message of ample support for Moscow. A schedule of coming high-level visits is intended to demonstrate that backing. Vice President Al Gore Jr. will arrive in December, only a few days after scheduled elections for a new parliament, and President Clinton is coming in mid-January after the NATO summit.

``The president considers Russia to be this country's most important strategic relationship,'' a White House spokesman said in announcing the summit. Christopher emphasized this point as well, spending much of his time reassuring the Russians about a new US plan to slow the pace of consideration of membership for the countries of eastern and central Europe to be members of the NATO alliance. The Russian government has raised concerns that an expansion of NATO would leave them out in the cold, behind a new barrier dividing Europe.

US officials described Yeltsin's reaction to the plan, which calls for transitional forms of ``partnership'' with NATO including joint military exercises, as ``enthusiastic.'' But even by their account, and more clearly in that of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozryev, the Russians put more emphasis on putting off the membership issue and have not clearly endorsed the idea of eventual membership, even if it were to include Russia.

A key area of common concern is to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including those among the former Soviet republics. Both Russia and the US are pressing Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, where former Soviet nuclear weapons are also stationed, to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear states. Following talks yesterday with Christopher, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev pledged to ratify the treaty by the end of the year. Ukraine, where Christopher arrived late yesterday, still wants to leave its nuclear option open.

BUT ``partnership'' is more difficult to define when it comes to issues such as democratization. Even after the end of two weeks of emergency rule, 15 newspapers remain banned, along with 10 political organizations accused of involvement in the armed uprising on Oct. 3-4.

``We also recognize that governments have a responsibility to preserve civil order,'' Christopher said in a speech at Moscow's Academy of National Economy. ``But even in times of intense political struggle, the imperative of civil order must be reconciled with free expression. Even when battling the forces of reaction, true democrats have nothing to fear from a free press.''

Senior US officials accompanying Christopher told reporters that they had been assured by Russian officials ``that there will be a relaxation of restrictions on the press in the fairly near future.'' Yet Mr. Kozyrev used a joint press conference to openly laugh and sneer at a correspondent of Pravda, the former Communist daily, which has been banned despite a lack of evidence that it supported armed rebellion.

Such attitudes underline the growing apprehension about the fairness of the coming elections. Yeltsin last week gave assurances that all participating parties will have equal access to the broadcast media. But the major television and radio channels are all state-controlled and their news coverage has been slanted in the government's favor.

The short time available for campaigning - little more than a month after candidate lists are finally approved - adds to that concern. The government has further complicated the vote by adding a referendum to approve or disapprove the basic principles of a new constitution, the draft of which has yet to be finalized.

Even Yeltsin's backers worry about a drift toward authoritarianism and hope that the US will maintain pressure to ensure a fully democratic process.

``Russian tradition is authoritarian,'' comments former Soviet foreign minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, head of the Foreign Policy Association. ``The danger is that democratic values will be easily transformed into law-and-order values, especially in a society that lacks a good legal system.''

Mr. Bessmertnykh, who served as the Soviet ambassador to the US, recalls that Western pressure was key during the era of reform under Mikhail Gorbachev. ``The Western position on human rights helped Gorbachev and perestroika to change the system,'' he recalls. ``For the West, the best thing to do is to stick to its basic values. It is in the national interest of the West to have Russia be democratic.''

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