WASHINGTON -- President Clinton praised Boris Yeltsin yesterday as a champion of democracy who lowered the risk of nuclear war, while Russia experts expressed cautious hope that successor Vladimir V. Putin will keep his promises to support Russian democracy and economic reform.
Yeltsin's "lasting achievement has been dismantling the Communist system and creating a vital democratic process within a constitutional framework," Clinton said yesterday morning.
U.S. officials and policy analysts applied new attention to Putin, an ex-KGB officer who was virtually unknown in the West until he assumed the premiership in August.
Named acting president upon Yeltsin's resignation, Putin is the odds-on favorite to win the presidential election that is supposed to be held within three months.
His apparent lock on power follows years of uncertainty in Washington about who would succeed Yeltsin, who for all his instability was seen by the Clinton administration as an indispensable democrat and moderate in the former communist nation.
Moreover, the two men had an extraordinarily close personal relationship that was often manifest in public. They hugged in public, brought each other to knee-slapping laughter. They exchanged warm letters and long telephone calls.
They talked on the telephone yesterday for 20 minutes. Yeltsin reportedly told Clinton: "I am very glad that I was your friend. I will continue to be your friend."
"I liked him because he was always very forthright with me," Clinton told reporters afterward. "He always did exactly what he said he would do."
In contrast to their lavish praise of Yeltsin, administration officials were cautious in references to Putin, whose prosecution of a brutal war in Chechnya has earned much of the world's opprobrium in recent weeks.
Clinton barely mentioned him, saying he looks "forward to working with acting President Putin." Clinton was unsuccessful in reaching Putin on the telephone as of early yesterday evening but was expected to continue trying through the weekend, a White House official said.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called Putin "a can-do person" and "a very hard worker who understands all the things that need to be done with Russia." Russian Foreign Policy Minister Igor Ivanov assured Albright yesterday "that there is no shift in terms of their foreign policy," she said.
Focus on power transfer
U.S. officials focused most of their public remarks on the orderly, legal transfer of power -- something that has never been assured in Russia -- not the person who now wields that power.
"Clearly the fact that we're seeing a peaceful transition within a democratic framework bodes well at this point," said Jim Fallin, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Independent analysts believe Putin's rise could improve U.S.-Russia relations, leading to further arms reduction, for example, or an understanding on anti-missile defenses.
"There's a general respect for Putin" among U.S. government officials, said Edward B. Atkeson, a Russia specialist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We really don't know too much about him. But the fact that Putin lasted for some five months since the last turnover [in the premiership] is an indication that Yeltsin thought he had a stronger prime minister than he did previously."
Yeltsin has supported U.S.-backed measures such as economic reform and Russian ratification of the START II arms reduction treaty, but his poor health and domestic unpopularity limited his ability to get anything done.
Putin, by contrast, brings strong, action-oriented leadership and popular support -- characteristics that might allow him to secure parliamentary approval for START II, said John Wolfsthal, an arms expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
With Yeltsin's surprise resignation, Putin gains power six months earlier than he might have under the Russian election schedule. That gives Clinton extra time to strike economic or defense deals with Putin before a new U.S. administration takes office in early 2001.
While Putin has not visited the United States, he has worked with U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, met Albright a few times and been scrutinized closely since he became Yeltsin's heir apparent last summer. He is seen as favoring a less chaotic but still democratic Russia and as eager for renewed financial assistance from the West.
"We don't get the feeling that we're getting a wild card," Wolfsthal said. "He's somewhat of a known quantity."
Russia's economy has been a shambles, buffeted by corruption and the financial crisis that struck developing nations in 1998. One of Putin's first priorities will be to secure new credit lines from the International Monetary Fund, analysts said.
The IMF has lent Russia more than $20 billion since the Soviet Union fell apart, but the latest credits have been delayed by allegations of corruption and by stalled Russian economic reforms.