WASHINGTON -- As Boris N. Yeltsin bumps up against the realities of his leadership of post-coup Russia, Bush administration officials believe his shining new image may become tarnished.
They are concerned that despite his courage and charisma, the Russian president's most basic instincts may be anti-democratic and troublesome to long-term stability.
As a result, the administration will do all it can to support the continuing existence of the Soviet government, try to help President Mikhail S. Gorbachev consolidate his authority and proceed very cautiously in recognizing claims of independence by non-Baltic republics, officials say.
"You have to respect what Yeltsin did during the coup, even if it was a little swashbuckling; the guy has a flair," said a senior official, "but he also has certain demagogic qualities. He may be anti-democratic."
Officials cite his threat to review existing borders with neighboring republics -- specifically those with large Russian populations -- if they declared independence and his shutting down Communist Party newspapers after the coup.
"There is reason to doubt his commitment" to democracy, said a State Department official. He said that Mr. Yeltsin, like Mr. Gorbachev, was a high-ranking member of the old undemocratic system.
"But the big question is how he'll relate to the other republics," he said. To call Mr. Yeltsin's threat to review borders "unhelpful is putting it too mildly -- it was inflammatory," and while he may have meant it to discourage republics from leaving the union, the official said, it could have the opposite effect.
Some Yeltsin watchers fear that the rush to independence by other republics is an effort to escape what might be a streak of ruthlessness in Mr. Yeltsin's approach. His statement on borders "sounded like classic imperialist thinking," said one.
Kazakhstan has nearly as many Russians as Kazakhs, and Kazakh leader Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, who had been an ally of Mr. Yeltsin's, accused him of "great-power chauvinism." Objecting also to a Yeltsin demand that key positions in the new government be reserved for his candidates, Mr. Nazarbayev asked, "What kind of democracy is this?"
Marshall Goldman of Harvard University's Russian Research Center said the main problem with Mr. Yeltsin is that "there is no check on his power because he is such a hero, the people are indebted to him, and he has an enormous ego -- like a czar or an emperor." Moreover, he pointed out, Russian laws on separation of powers are vague.
"The Soviet Union, or even a Russia, governed by a ruthless but more effective leader could pose the same old threat to the U.S. That's what we have to worry about. That is not an impossible result of the chaos that's now prevalent . . . you end up with a Napoleon," said a senior White House official.
While U.S. recognition of the Baltic republics' independence is expected to proceed perhaps as early as tomorrow, one official said, there will be caution in recognizing the other republics. "We do not want to get in the middle of that, and we want to do nothing to encourage further breakup of the union," he said.
"We don't have very much influence, but we'll use what we have."
The White House has long had a skeptical view of Mr. Yeltsin. During his first visit to the United States in 1989, he appeared less than sober at a public appearance at Johns Hopkins University and later refused to leave the office of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft until he was allowed to see the president.
But President Bush and his aides have praised Mr. Yeltsin warmly as a true hero after he stared down military forces loyal to the putsch at the Russian republic headquarters.
"We're prepared to work with him and support him and help him and be frank in sharing our concerns. That's what's important, not recalling his behavior in 1989," said one official.
However, the realities of ruling Russia, the very complicated ethnic questions, the contradictions of his own Russian nationalism and, most importantly, the need to resolve disastrous economic problems lead U.S. experts to believe that his popularity faces severe tests.
The economic problems, Mr. Goldman said, "are a task so daunting that Einstein and Jesus could not solve them together."