Russian hard-liners' success casts pall over Clinton policy, analysts say

December 14, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The world never gets easier for Bill Clinton.

Now Russia's voters have raised the prospect that the former Soviet Union may pose a renewed threat to U.S. interests.

From President Clinton on down, administration officials were circumspect in early reactions to the surprisingly strong showing by former Communists and other opponents of reform in last weekend's elections.

Mr. Clinton said he thought it "possible" that a pro-democracy coalition could emerge in Parliament that would work with President Boris N. Yeltsin and prevent a dramatic reversal in Russia's foreign policy.

But it seems clear that the election results will make it more difficult for Mr. Clinton to back Mr. Yeltsin in his fights with hard-liners in Parliament.

"This place is going to be a headache for a hell of a long time," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution, who has held senior foreign policy posts in Democratic and Republican administrations.

Mr. Clinton, stressing the incomplete results, chose to focus on the success of Mr. Yeltsin's constitution and the apparently free and fair electoral process. He said he was "not particularly surprised" by the strong showing of ultranationalists such as Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky who would like to restore the old Soviet xTC Union to power under a new Russian empire and curb Russia's budding friendship with the United States.

"I think in any country where people -- ordinary people -- are having a hard time, you're going to have some significant protest vote, including the United States," the president told reporters in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Mr. Clinton did say that in pressing for economic reform, the United States and its allies would now have to be more sensitive to the impact of dramatic change on the lives of the average

Russian.

State Department spokesman Michael McCurry hinted at private worry in the administration when he acknowledged that Mr. Zhirinovsky statements about restoring Russia's imperial past "certainly is something that would cause concern."

Until now, the United States could side with Mr. Yeltsin in his fights with hard-liners in the Parliament -- even in dissolving the body and storming its building -- since he was the elected choice of the people and they were Leonid I. Brezhnev-era holdovers.

That may no longer be possible, since Sunday's election legitimizes the opposition in Parliament.

And the same enhanced powers Mr. Yeltsin won with Russia's backing of his draft constitution could be used to bolster Mr. Zhirinovsky or some other ultranationalist when a new president is elected in 1996.

In setting Moscow's Parliament building ablaze in October, Mr. Yeltsin may have "jumped from the frying pan into the fire," said Russia expert Richard W. Judy of the conservative Hudson Institute.

Mr. Yeltsin now faces a popular parliamentary foe who is more skillful at working the system. Indeed, it is Mr. Zhirinovsky willingness to play by the rules -- he didn't join the violent protests earlier this fall, for instance -- that makes him "very dangerous," according to Mr. Judy.

Already, says Harvey Sicherman, president of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, there are "ominous signs" that "old Russian habits are resurfacing."

"We wanted to forget that Russia was a great power -- and not an easy power to live with," he said.

For much of this year, the Clinton administration has pursued a staunchly pro-Yeltsin foreign policy. Fears of a backlash against the Russian leader influenced the decision not to intervene militarily in Bosnia and to go slow in adding former Communist states in Eastern Europe to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Now the former Soviet satellites are increasingly nervous about Russia's potential threat, as was evident yesterday when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania decided to hold a summit to ponder the election results.

Whether Russia poses a new danger to the West, one thing is clear, Mr. Sicherman said, America's expectation of what would come out of a non-Communist Russia is "starting to turn sour."

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