When political turmoil hits Russia, Americans may wonder: Can the "evil empire" ever return?
Washington's Kremlin-watchers don't think so. They see the recent political maneuvering in Moscow - a carryover from President Boris Yeltsin's firing last month of his entire Cabinet - as a sign that the messy business of democracy continues to take root in the former Soviet republic.
That's not to say they have no concerns: The state of President Yeltsin's health and his attentiveness to his job are closely followed here. Now, as Russia's politicians begin to jockey for position leading up to the 2000 presidential elections, Washington is keeping an eye on the men around Mr. Yeltsin, who cannot run for a third term.
While it has a way to go, Russia is becoming more of a "normal" democracy with new faces entering the political arena, US officials say. Center stage now is Acting Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, whose elevation to that post surprised many here.
But Mr. Kiriyenko is not unknown in the United States. During his recent service as fuel and energy minister, he met several times with American officials and businessmen.
"There's no particular queasiness here," says a US government source. "The impression people had was that he was quite open, quite good, ready to solve problems, and pragmatic."
Last Friday, the Duma, or parliament, refused to confirm Kiriyenko as prime minister. But Washington officials predict Kiriyenko will win approval on the second or third try. (Under the Russian Constitution, the president automatically calls new elections if parliament rejects his candidate three times.) But the Communist Party, the largest Duma grouping, is instructing its deputies to vote against Kiriyenko in a second round tentatively set for tomorrow.
To be sure, fierce resistance to market economics and Western-style democracy rages among some Russians. Still, US officials generally rule out a return to a Soviet-style Communist system. "Russia has become so enmeshed in the world economy that you can't really take all this back," says a second US official.
Yeltsin dropped a few hints earlier about his dissatisfaction with the pace of economic reform. But the US was caught somewhat off guard by his dismissal of former Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin's government.
"There is a real concern that although the economy has been relatively stable in Russia and survived the Asian [economic troubles] pretty well, [it] hasn't taken off as has been hoped and projected," says the US government source. The backlog of months-overdue wages and pensions is growing instead of lessening. "That would be crippling for any Russian government."
US officials note Kiriyenko's close ties to Boris Nemtsov, the reformist ex-mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, who was Mr. Chernomyrdin's deputy. Some wonder if Kiriyenko is a stalking horse for Mr. Nemtsov, who many believe would make a potent presidential candidate two years hence.
No one here writes off Chernomyrdin, a skillful bureaucrat if not a brilliant politician. "I would not rule him out," the US official says. Leading the pack is Communist Party head Gennady Zyu-ganov, who gave Yeltsin a tough race in 1996. Nemtsov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and centrist Grigory Yavlinsky are also possibilities.
A wild card is former Gen. Alexander Lebed, who has popular appeal and a squeaky-clean image. He is running for governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, but appears to be losing ground in the race. The anti-Semitic, anti-Western Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who once attracted sizable crowds, has lost much of his following. "Certainly nobody [in Russia] takes him seriously," the US official says.