President Clinton offered enthusiastic support Tuesday to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's decision to suspend Parliament, saying Yeltsin was trying to ensure that economic and political reforms will continue.
"There is no question that President Yeltsin acted in response to a constitutional crisis that had reached a critical impasse and had paralyzed the political process," Clinton said in a written statement. "President Yeltsin has chosen to allow the people of Russia themselves to resolve this impasse. . . . I support him fully."
The President said he telephoned Yeltsin on Tuesday afternoon "to seek assurances" that he was committed to holding democratic elections. But even before the Russian offered those assurances, Clinton "began the conversation by assuring President Yeltsin of American support," a senior official said.
Clinton's statement was the centerpiece of an unusually vigorous show of support for the Russian president from all quarters of the Clinton Administration.
"We feel that Boris Yeltsin is the best hope for democracy in Russia," Vice President Al Gore told reporters on Capitol Hill.
And Secretary of State Warren Christopher, praising Yeltsin for trying to end the parliamentary gridlock that was blocking further reform, urged Congress to approve a pending Administration request for $2.5 billion in new economic aid for Moscow and its neighbors.
"I think the reasons (to provide aid) are even stronger than they were before this announcement," Christopher said. " . . . Support for Russian reform at this time is an investment in the national security of the United States and the prosperity of the Russian people."
If Yeltsin fails, senior officials warned, his successors could well be hard-liners who are hostile not only to further democratic reforms but to the United States as well.
Russian Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, elected acting president by the Supreme Soviet, said he is disappointed by Clinton's support of Yeltsin.
"You know I am very deeply disappointed that the President of the United States is supporting these anti-constitutional actions," Rutskoi said on the ABC program "Nightline."
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers generally voiced support for Yeltsin.
"It may be that Yeltsin made the judgment that there was no other way to guarantee that the reform process will continue without taking this drastic step," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.). " . . . We know that Boris Yeltsin has steadfastly committed to democratic and economic reform in Russia."
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said: "I trust that (Yeltsin) felt that given the circumstances, given the crisis of the economy in the country, that something had to be done. And I think we have to look to his judgment for doing this in the right way."
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was "on the side of Yeltsin."
"You always hate to see Parliament dismissed if you believe in democracy. But this Parliament has not really faced the electorate since the reforms," Nunn said.
Clinton and other top officials ducked the question of whether Yeltsin's action was unconstitutional, and whether that issue should affect the U.S. position.
"I'm not going to get into a discussion of the Russian constitution," Christopher said. "That will be up to the Russian people at the time they have an opportunity to vote in early December."
But other senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, readily acknowledged that Yeltsin's decision to dissolve Parliament was unconstitutional--and said that didn't matter.
Russia's current constitution was written in 1978, when the Communist Party still ruled, and is not "fully democratic," he said.
Besides, he added, the main interest of the United States is in the completion of Russia's transformation into a democratic society with a free-market economy--and Parliament was standing in the way of that process.
He noted that Yeltsin, in his telephone call with Clinton, emphasized twice that "the pace of reform will continue" now that Parliament, which was dominated by opponents of reform, has been disbanded.
Clinton telephoned Yeltsin a few minutes after 4 p.m. EDT--a few minutes after midnight in Moscow and only four hours after Yeltsin's announcement. The two men talked for 17 minutes, according to a senior official who was present and listened in.
"President Yeltsin's voice, tone and manner expressed considerable strength, robustness and optimism," the official said. "He really sounded in very good form."
Officials made a point of telling reporters that there were no significant signs of resistance to Yeltsin's actions.
"All the indications that we have show no unusual activity in the military," a Pentagon official said. "Everything is normal. There have been no unusual movements of strategic (nuclear) or conventional units."
Still, a senior official acknowledged, the Administration does not know whether Yeltsin will succeed in imposing his will on Russia's fractious political system.
Clinton and his aides needed very little time to decide to take Yeltsin's side, officials said.
They had been increasingly alarmed at the Russian Parliament's growing resistance to economic reform, especially its refusal to hold down its own budget deficit--an impasse that prompted the International Monetary Fund to hold up a badly needed $1.5-billion loan.
The Administration faced a similar situation in March, when Yeltsin threatened to impose dictatorial rule and demanded a referendum on his reforms. Clinton gave his support to Yeltsin then, too.
U.S. officials in Moscow were instructed Tuesday to deliberately avoid any contact with Rutskoi for the time being. "We don't want any ambiguity to arise over who we recognize as Russia's president," a senior official explained.
Christopher and other senior officials said they had no advance warning of Yeltsin's action. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Thomas R. Pickering, was called to the Russian Foreign Ministry about an hour before the speech and told about its contents in general terms, they said.
But officials said they were not entirely surprised.
The CIA and the State Department had warned that Yeltsin and the Parliament were heading for a showdown.
And last week, during the ceremonies marking the Palestine Liberation Organization's peace agreement with Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev quietly told Christopher that the political crisis was nearing a break point.