Russia Could Provide Early Test for Clinton's Foreign Policy US View Could Influence Standoff between Yeltsin and Conservative Legislators over Future of Reform

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RUSSIA'S brewing political crisis is likely to provide an early foreign policy test for United States President-elect Clinton. Political experts here say the new administration's handling of the situation could greatly influence Russian market reforms.

The Supreme Soviet, Russia's standing parliament, turned up the heat on President Boris Yeltsin Wednesday, passing a law placing the government under legislative control. Mr. Yeltsin had enjoyed the right to appoint Cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval. The Supreme Soviet and the president have clashed repeatedly over the pace of market reforms, and Yeltsin's aides have called the law unconstitutional.

Russia's crisis comes as Mr. Clinton looks ready to focus on remedying economic woes in the US. But the US must not become too inwardly focused, Russian experts warn. If Clinton fails to act promptly on developments in Russia, the consequences could be harsh for the US, they add.

"Russia has never been more vulnerable to outside pressure," says Andrei Kortunov, a researcher at Moscow's USA-Canada Institute. "The new Clinton administration must clearly show where it stands on {Russian} reforms." he adds. "When you have such a fragile political balance as now in Russia, even marginal influence can tip the scale."

At the same time, Mr. Kortunov says, the new administration must be patient with Yeltsin, who could resort to unorthodox methods to repulse conservative attacks. This week during a visit to Britain, Yeltsin hinted he may use administrative means, or even declare presidential rule, to defend reforms. (Yeltsin in Hungary, Page 6.)

Robert Strauss, former US ambassador to Russia, said at his farewell news conference that the US should trust Yeltsin to make the right decisions for Russia's move to a market. "I have great respect for President Yeltsin's political instincts.... He's as good as I've ever seen," said Mr. Strauss, a former Democratic Party chairman and a Washington political insider.

Some in Moscow, however, are concerned that a new administration could misinterpret, and thus overreact to Yeltsin's political maneuvers. "The idea of democracy is losing popularity in Russia, and there is growing sympathy for authoritarianism," Kortunov says. "That doesn't fit well into the philosophy of the Democratic Party."

Many Russians are apprehensive about the policies of the incoming Democratic administration. For most here, the only model for a Democratic president is Jimmy Carter, who was perceived by Moscow as being unpredictable and overly concerned about human rights. …