Washington, June 18 (RFE/RL) - U.S. officials are interpreting the first round of Russia's presidential election as a sign of strengthening Russian democracy, which also strengthens hopes in America that president Boris Yeltsin will be re-elected, and Washington's Russia policy will be vindicated.
U.S. president Bill Clinton planned to telephone Yeltsin today or tomorrow to congratulate him on what Clinton told reporters Monday was "a strong showing" in the June 16 ballot. Clinton called it "a milestone for Russian democracy," adding that "there seems to have been a heavy majority of people who voted for the democratic process and for the path of reform and that's good news."
Clinton praised the vigorous political contest in the first ballot, saying it is a tribute to Yeltsin and his support of the institution of the electoral process.
Preliminary results showed Yeltsin leading Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with retired general Alexander Lebed coming in third.
Lebed, a war hero who ran on a platform of stamping out crime and corruption and restoring law and order in Russia, is now being courted by both Yeltsin and Zyuganov with promises of a major role in the new government.
The prevailing view in Washington is that Yeltsin will go into the runoff election in early July with a good chance of victory.
U.S.Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) said in a CNN television interview Monday that the outlook is favorable for Yeltsin.
But he cautioned that the Russian president will have to keep up a vigorous campaign. "He has to keep up the energy, keep up the enthusiasm and continue to explain the consequences of going back to communism," Nunn said.
He added that Yeltsin will have to form coalitions and continue to expand his bloc of supporters. He has demonstrated he can do that, while Zyuganov has not, Nunn said.
Despite the closeness of the first round, there is a sense of relief among Washington experts that Zyganov has not significantly enlarged his following. Analysts attributed that to what they said was his old-fashioned, leaden style of campaigning, as well as the staleness of his message.
Nunn, as well as former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, top foreign policy official in the previous U.S. administration of president George Bush, say voter turnout will be the all important, deciding factor for Yeltsin in the second round.
The date has not been set yet and is variously reported by Russian media as being planned for June 30, July 3rd or July 7th.
Although voter turnout for a run-off election is traditionally low, especially in a season of summer vacations, analysts say Russian voters, aware of the importance of their ballot, may defy the general trend.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Monday that America's approach to the runoff election would continue to stress support for the democratic process and for political and economic reform in Russia.
"We want to see democracy take root, because that will benefit the Russian people and the American people as well," he said.
Christopher stressed at a briefing for the press that no matter who wins the Russian presidential election, U.S. policy would not change because it is based on enduring U.S. national interests.
He said the U.S. would continue to focus on three major areas. Christopher defined them as first and foremost, military and nuclear cooperation with Russia to continue disarmament toward agreed targets, safeguard nucear materials and work for common goals such as a comprehensive, global test ban treaty.
The second area, according to Christopher, is U.S.-Russian cooperation on foreign policy toward other regions, including Bosnia and the Balkans, and the Middle East.
Last but not least, he named U.S. interest in promoting internal, democratizing reform in Russia as vital to the U.S.national interest.
Top U.S. officials, in what appear to be coordinated statements responding to mostly Republican criticism of Clinton's Democrat administration, are emphasizing that U.S. policy toward Russia is based on the national interest and not on individual preferences and biases.
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who resigned last week to give more time to campaigning in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, said at the weekend that "U.S. relations with Russia should be based on our interests and values, not on any one individual or U.S. romanticism toward Russia."
Dole, expected to be the Republican Party's presidential candidate in the November election, appeared to be referring to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the architect of America's Russia policy, who has been criticized for being too deferential to Russian interests in the former Soviet republics, and for not taking a tougher line in defence of Chechnya and human rights.
However, even Talbott's critics agree that Yeltsin is the only presidential candidate in Russia with a chance to win, who stands for at least some elements of democracy and market reform.