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Russia's Historic Vote

Clinton Praises Yeltsin's Showing as 'Good News'

Reaction: U.S. officials vow to do all they can to boost Russian president in runoff with Communist.

June 18, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton congratulated President Boris N. Yeltsin on Monday for his strong showing in the first round of Russia's presidential election, and obviously relieved U.S. officials pledged to do everything they can to boost the chances of the incumbent in next month's runoff.

In brief comments to reporters, Clinton praised Yeltsin as the primary author of Russian democracy and the person who deserves most of the credit for Sunday's orderly and seemingly fair election.

Although Yeltsin held only a narrow lead over Communist Party candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov, administration officials said Yeltsin appears to have the inside track in the runoff. Officials believe that the one-third of Russians who voted for neither Yeltsin nor Zyuganov is unlikely to vote for a restoration of communism.

Although officials said that Washington's influence with the Russian public is limited, they made it clear that the United States will do what it can, starting with a high-profile meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin at this month's meeting of the world's industrial powers in Lyon, France.

Despite its ritual assertions of neutrality, the administration has made no secret of its preference for Yeltsin, investing much of its own prestige in the Russian contest. A loss for Yeltsin after last month's defeat of Washington favorite Shimon Peres in Israel could have been seen as a devastating rejection of U.S. world leadership.

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With extravagant language, Clinton on Monday stripped away the last vestige of American even-handedness on the matter. Republicans, including presumptive presidential candidate Bob Dole, agreed that Yeltsin is preferable to Zyuganov.

"There seems to have been a heavy majority of people who voted for the democratic process and for the path of reform," Clinton said. "That's good news."

Clinton said that he will congratulate Yeltsin on "the strong showing that he made but also on the fact that he really supported the constitution, he supported the institution of the electoral process. And the very fact that [the election] occurred in such a vigorous fashion I think is a real credit to him.

"Probably more than any other single person, [Yeltsin] wanted Russia to be a free country that picked its leaders by elections," Clinton said.

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Although there has been occasional friction in the Yeltsin-Clinton relationship, the United States has steadfastly avoided any sort of public disagreement since the Russian election campaign began. Officials said it is unlikely that the United States will question anything Yeltsin does until after the runoff.

"It's very clear that there is a big difference between the two men still standing, President Yeltsin and Mr. Zyuganov--a big difference in policy, in orientation, in psychology--about the type of country that they want to see enter into the next century," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.

Citing Yeltsin policies that he said are important to the United States, Burns said Russia has put into place "a measure of nuclear stability and military cooperation with the West . . . [and] a degree of foreign policy cooperation in Bosnia, in the Middle East, on European security issues, in Southeast Asia, in Africa and Latin America, that goes way beyond anything that we were able to achieve with [former Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev."

Zyuganov, on the other hand, wants to "return to the command economy" of the Soviets, Burns said.

Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who was secretary of state at the end of President George Bush's administration, said Yeltsin is preferable to his opponent even if he is not quite the paragon that Clinton administration officials describe.

"I think you'll see the process of reform continue [if Yeltsin wins]; maybe not as fast or as clearly as we would like, but he's the only candidate we've got that can do it," Eagleburger said Monday in a television interview.

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