Russian Elections: Clinton gambles all on a win by Yeltsin

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WASHINGTON - The United States has been giving all the encouragement it can to President Boris Yeltsin during the run-up to the Russian elections. But critics here complain ever more loudly that in Washington's desire to further Russian democracy it is gambling too much on a single individual whose democratic credentials are more than questionable.

At almost every turn the Clinton administration has given the Russian President the benefit of the doubt, from his harsh suppression of the old parliament to the proliferating evidence of Moscow's desire to restore its old dominance in the former Soviet Union and East European buffer states.

For the administration, this strategy is no more than common sense, an acknowledgement of Russia's weight in the world. It also offers the best chance of allowing the reform movement to consolidate its gains.

'We shouldn't put all our trust in one individual,' said Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat. 'Some of Yeltsin's actions have not been the actions of a democrat.' Yes indeed, the focus should be on Russia, 'but some smaller republics have been getting short shrift - Ukraine in particular and the Baltic republics can't be excluded'.

Accommodation now extends to Nato, which under US prodding has discarded the notion of admitting Central European nations as full members. Hence the new 'Partnership for Peace' formula open to everyone, including Russia, offering close co-operation to the fledgling democracies of the East, but stopping short of the full- scale security guarantees sought by Warsaw, Prague and others.

As a senior Pentagon official said: 'If Russia is in, you might as well admit every state in Europe and this very successful military alliance is turned into another version of CSCE (the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe). But if you leave Russia out, then you have drawn a new line across the map of Europe, several hundred kilometres to the east.'

Whether or not Russia subscribes to Partnership for Peace, the pursuit of confidence-building security measures continues. Les Aspin, the US Defense Secretary, and General Pavel Grachev, his Russian opposite number, have signed an agreement on joint military exercises. The Pentagon is also studying a possible retargeting of US strategic missiles away from Russian sites.

Thus, Washington seems prepared to give Mr Yeltsin the benefit of every doubt, in the belief this will bolster his domestic position and allay the suspicions of Russia's military establishment. But as the ambiguous Nato proposal shows, the dilemma of Russia's relationship with Europe and the countries around it remains.

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has evinced no alarm over assertion to a right of military tutelage over the former Soviet states. Nor is there any sign the US has worked out how it would respond if the Russians extended that right as far as interference in the former Soviet republics, or in the old 'external empire' of Eastern Europe.

Washington is hoping that the election outcome will strengthen the reform movement, and with it the constraints on Mr Yeltsin and his more autocratic advisers, especially in the military. A first assessment will come with Vice- President Al Gore's visit to Moscow on Wednesday.

For now, there is little to do but wait and watch. As Mr Bradley noted, this weekend is only 'the beginning of the building of democracy in Russia'. But that begs the question of whether democracy, as the West understands it, is what Mr Yeltsin has in mind.