US Tempers Relief at Yeltsin's Victory With Concern for a Rise in Nationalism

President Boris Yeltsin's decisive election win is viewed by the White House as a victory for reform and moderation in Russia - and a vindication of its tolerant approach in dealing with a nuclear superpower.

Yet renewed uncertainty about Mr. Yeltsin's health and a rejigging of factions around him complicates US-Russian relations as much as at any time since the hammer-and-sickle flag was removed from the Kremlin five years ago.

Despite what it sees as a favorable election outcome, the State Department plans to focus intently on the new government in Moscow, particularly the role of Yeltsin's possible heir, Gen. Alexander Lebed, his new security adviser. In one sense, no matter who won, a debate was bound to intensify in Washington over "setting limits" on Russia's apparent new nationalism. US security officials plan to spend time weighing how much of the anti-Western tone on both sides of the Russian runoff was rhetoric - and how much represents a new reality.

In the short term, however, the White House has ducked a foreign policy bullet. For the past six months - which saw decisive Communist wins in the Russian parliament and a seemingly floundering Yeltsin - the White House has been tempering earlier optimism that Russia was moving swiftly into the sunny uplands of democracy.

But the White House stuck with Yeltsin. "We tried to walk a very clear line.... We supported reform and reformers," says one administration official.

Yet how much "reform" a Yeltsin administration truly advocates concerns Washington. Yeltsin's mysterious disappearance related to his health and his need to deal with ardent nationalists raise many questions for the US.

"I think the real issues for us now are, 'Who really won the election?' and 'Who rules Russia?' " says a high-ranking State Department official in Europe who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think the elections helped democracy. But I don't think they were a resounding triumph of democracy. The greatest force in Russia now is not democracy. It is nationalism."

For much of the Clinton presidency, the Russia policy, engineered by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, was characterized by tolerance and a view that Russia was on the verge of civil society.

President Clinton said little on the Chechen incursion, helped Russia with loans even when it did not meet international standards, and backed off plans to expand NATO when moderates in Moscow said it undercut their progress.

Certainly the White House will continue treating Moscow as an equal, working with the Kremlin in multilateral forums and encouraging Kremlin moderates. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told the Monitor yesterday that Yeltsin's reappointment of Victor Chernomyrdin "is a reaffirmation of economic reform in Russia."

But in recent months and weeks, the phrase "setting limits" has arisen in policy circles - with the first major example being the inclusion of several Central European states in NATO.

"The Yeltsin we pretended existed never did - that is, Yeltsin the democrat," says one former high-ranking State Department official. "But even if he did, he doesn't now."

Washington is keenly interested in the emerging profile of Yeltsin's new security chief, Mr. Lebed.

A general who impressed US officials by his stated openness to NATO expansion and his opposition to the war in Chechnya and Russian expansion, Lebed has shown another side in recent weeks. He made openly anti-Semitic statements, criticized Western religions, and put in his bid to be Yeltsin's successor.

"Some of the things [Lebed] said were very disturbing to us," a National Security Council staffer says. "One of our tasks in the next months is to bring more discipline to examining Yeltsin's policies. If some of the campaign rhetoric is reflected in policies, we will have a problem with that."

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