WASHINGTON — What worries the Clinton administration most about Russia's impending election for president is not the prospect that Communist candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov might win. U.S. officials have a policy ready for that: accept the Communist return to power and try to turn Zyuganov toward a democratic, peaceful path.
Instead, officials say, the White House's worst fear is a contested result that leads to bloodshed in Moscow's streets or paralysis of Russia's government.
As Sunday's first round of the election nears, the administration's foreign policy team is pondering the prospect of a dangerously deadlocked election and planning what to do if trouble erupts.
"This administration is ready for any conceivable outcome," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott told reporters Friday. "I can assure you . . . we have contemplated, considered, thought of every conceivable outcome. . . . And the U.S. government will do whatever is necessary to defend the interests of the United States."
Talbott refused to describe publicly the range of possible outcomes and the likely responses from the administration.
If the results are contested by the defeated candidate, however, "our hope is that the institutions will take over" to stabilize the situation, one official said. He explained that the Russian judicial system or the electoral commission could step in and arbitrate a solution.
U.S. officials anticipate that none of the 10 candidates for president will win a majority in the first round of voting. Zyuganov and President Boris N. Yeltsin are expected to lead the pack and thus qualify for a second round of voting. Polls favor a Yeltsin victory, but U.S. officials, while they want such an outcome, fear that Russian polling is unreliable.
The Clinton administration regards the election as pivotal for Russia, both because it is the first presidential balloting since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and because it has raised the specter of a return to some kind of communism.
Officially, the administration has not endorsed any candidate. "Since it's democracy that we are supporting," said the senior administration official, "it is not appropriate, it is not respectful of the Russian people to tell them who they ought to vote for. . . . An endorsement would be . . . patronizing and . . . counterproductive."
But there is little doubt that U.S. officials want Yeltsin to turn back the Communist Zyuganov.
"We have paid close attention to what he and the Communist Party have advocated in the parliament and we are concerned about what he has advocated . . . especially renationalization of the economy and the reconstitution of the U.S.S.R.," Talbott said.
Nevertheless, Talbott insists that a Communist victory would not mean an automatic return to the Cold War. Zyuganov would have to deal with the new realities of a Russian people who have had a taste of democracy and intend to keep it.
"The Russian people have made it quite clear . . . they welcome this democracy now that they finally have it," Talbott said. "They got it and mean to exercise it."
But there is also a concern in Washington that Yeltsin might attempt to negate the results or alter them in support of his reelection, should he fail to win a fair vote, officials said. That conceivably could lead to the chaos, paralysis and bloodshed feared by the Clinton administration.
For this reason, President Clinton--discussing the election in telephone conversations with Yeltsin--has raised the issue of respect for the democratic process.
Yeltsin, according to one senior official, replied that he considers himself "the guarantor of the Russian constitution," implying that he would stick to the letter of the election law.
Although U.S. officials regard a contested election and violence as "a worst-case scenario" and claim that they are preparing for this and any other eventuality, they are not predicting a violent outcome.
In fact, there is a widespread view among Russian specialists in Washington, evidently shared by U.S. officials, that violence is not likely.
Dimitri K. Simes, a Russian expert who is president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, said that Zyuganov and the Communists, if declared the losers to Yeltsin, "would be careful about damage limitation."
"They would not want to give an excuse to Yeltsin to dissolve the Duma and break the Communist Party," Simes said. The Duma is the lower house of parliament, in which the Communists have a large number of seats.
Talbott said that, no matter who wins the Russian election, the administration will be concerned about three issues. The first, which he said goes "to the heart of U.S. security," is "nukes: the ability to manage the nuclear relationship."
The second, Talbott went on, is Russia's "relationship with its neighboring states," especially the former states of the Soviet Union.
Finally, he said, the United States is concerned about "Russia's willingness and determination to stay with policies of privatization and decentralization."
The three issues raised by Talbott amount to an endorsement of Yeltsin, for the Russian president has reached agreement with the United States on reducing nuclear stockpiles, while Zyuganov has talked about re-forming the Soviet Union and again nationalizing industries.
Although Russian specialists will show up at their offices at the State Department on Sunday to monitor the vote, Talbott said that U.S. officials do not expect to have a clear idea of the outcome until Monday.