THE LABEL of "democrat" is so strongly affixed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin that he can get away with just about anything these days in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, especially with the threat of ultra-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky hanging over the Russian political scene.

What, after all, are a few human rights abuses in comparison with what Zhirinovsky might do as president? Why be concerned about Yeltsin's increasing reliance on the security services of the former KGB, if this is the only way he can keep his non-democratic enemies at bay?

This reasoning may explain why no one in the Clinton administration seems to notice the closed trial that is going on in the Moscow City Court, a trial having grave implications for human rights in Russia. The defendant is a courageous scientist, Vil Mirzaianov, who "blew the whistle" on the Russian government for engaging in chemical weapons experiments in violation of agreements signed with the West. After making these revelations in a September 1992 Moscow News article, Mirzaianov was arrested by the security police on charges of disclosing state secrets. (There are, in fact, no published laws defining what a state secret is.) Though he was later released to await trial, Mirzaianov was re-arrested again late last month.

Even before the strong showing of the Russian right-wing in December, the Clinton administration was turning a blind eye to Yeltsin's growing inclination to rely on the means and methods of his communist predecessors.

In July 1993, Yeltsin introduced substantial amendments to the law governing the Ministry of Security, which took over many domestic functions of the KGB after it was disbanded in late 1991. The amendments expanded the ministry's authority, even deleting the clause requiring its employees to obtain the sanction of the prosecutor's office in searching private premises.

A few weeks later, Yeltsin fired Minister of Security Viktor Barannikov on trumped-up charges of mishandling a border incident. He was actually dismissed because he refused to sic his investigators on Yeltsin's parliamentary enemies. As Barannikov's successor, Yeltsin installed Nikolai Golushko, who had a distinguished career in the KGB suppressing political dissent. Yeltsin also granted ministry employees a hefty pay raise. All of this was in preparation for Yeltsin's confrontation last autumn with the Russian parliament. Meanwhile Yeltsin had assembled a substantial security apparatus directly under him from other agencies of the disbanded KGB. The Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (formerly the KGB's eighth chief directorate) became Yeltsin's own arm. Headed by Alexander Starovoitov, who had the same job in KGB days, this agency is equipped with highly advanced technology for electronic eavesdropping and intelligence gathering, which came in handy when Yeltsin was planning his moves against then-Russian parliamentary speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov et al.

Yeltsin also has personal control over the 8,000-man Guards Directorate (formerly the Ninth Directorate of the KGB), which recently acquired the elite "Vympel" and "Alpha" anti-terrorist divisions. These were the troops that stormed the Russian parliament.

Yeltsin was not happy with the lukewarm support he got from Golushko's Ministry of Security during the October crisis, so he decided to disband it, creating from its ashes the Federal Counterintelligence Service. Yeltsinites have hailed this reorganization, which occurred in late December, as the final demise of the KGB-style security system. They state proudly that the new agency has been cut from 137,000 to 75,000 employees (by comparison, the FBI employs only around 24,000). They also promise that the agency will concern itself with purely counterintelligence matters, not politics. But Yeltsin has retained Golushko to run the new service and even allowed him to draw up the service's operational charter (which is top secret, along with its budget).

The 65,000 redundant Ministry of Security employees are not being thrown out in the cold. They are simply moving to other agencies, which are supervised by Yeltsin with little or no parliamentary interference. Several operational subunits will be transferred to Yeltsin's Guards Directorate and Communications Agency. The investigative apparatus is going to the prosecutor's office; the notorious Lefortovo Prison (where Yeltsin's parliamentary foes are languishing) goes to the MVD, or regular police.

Overseeing the entire security apparatus on behalf of Yeltsin is Yuri Baturin, a legal expert who served briefly under Mikhail Gorbachev. Baturin is reputed to be a liberal, but he is hardly an outsider. He is a longtime protege of Georgi Shakhnazarov, who was closely tied to former KGB chief Yuri Andropov. Clearly Yeltsin has strengthened the former KGB in order to defeat his political opponents, most of whom are anti-reformers. But if he employs ruthless methods against them, what is to prevent him from unleashing the security police against democrats who object to his policies? As the Mirzaianov case shows, Yeltsin cares little for individual rights, though the growing public outcry over Mirzaianov's treatment could force Yeltsin to seek a speedy resolution of the case. If Yeltsin were really committed to political reform, he would have tried to change the legal system to ensure the democratic freedoms that Russians enjoy now only provisionally. He would have created an independent judiciary and introduced laws to protect people from abuse by the state security organs.

Yeltsin is very much attuned to Western reaction. It is no coincidence that he made the dramatic announcement that he was disbanding the Ministry of Security shortly before President Clinton's January visit to Moscow. Nor is it mere chance that the Mirzaianov trial and arrest was postponed until Clinton returned to America.

It may be convenient for the West to go along with Yeltsin's game and thereby avoid putting extra pressure on him at a time when economic reform is a top priority. But sooner or later the issue of human rights will come to the fore and the U.S. administration will have to decide how far the Yeltsin government can go before it oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable in the West.

Amy Knight, a Russian affairs analyst, is the author, most recently, of "Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant."