RUSSIAN ELECTIONS : Clinton hopes he's picked the winner

WASHINGTON VIEW

The Clinton Administration is quietly praying that its chosen candidate fares better in tomorrow's momentous Russian presidential election than did the former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the vote in Israel a fortnight ago.

As it did with Mr Peres, the White House has unabashedly supported President Boris Yeltsin, tolerating his erratic personal behaviour and Moscow's brutal campaign in Chechnya, and encouraging a $10bn (pounds 6.6bn) IMF credit.

Unless the worst comes to the very worst, a victory for Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, will probably have little direct impact on the election race here. Even Mr Clinton's most ardent Republican foes admit America has at most a marginal influence on events in Russia.

Inevitably though, an upset win in Russia so soon after the upset in Israel would rekindle doubts about Mr Clinton's skill at foreign policy, an area where he has done well after a rocky startbut which is traditionally a Republican strength. "Who lost Russia?" will inevitably be the question should Mr Yeltsin lose. And a convenient scapegoat is to hand in the person of Strobe Talbott, deputy Secretary of State, architect of the administration's Russia policy.

A Communist comeback would almost certainly end Mr Talbott's hopes of replacing Warren Christopher as Secretary of State during a second Clinton term.

But far beyond the Washington power game, a Zyuganov win would have massively disruptive consequences for the US.

It is bound to increase pressure from members of the former Soviet "inner" and "outer" empires, the old Soviet republics and Eastern Europe to join an enlarged Nato, something that a Communist-controlled Kremlin would resist even more vigorously than has Mr Yeltsin.

It could also nullify laboriously crafted arms control agreements and provoke a costly new round of weapons spending that would make chances of a balanced budget even more remote.

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