Arkady Murashev, a relentless and fearless fighter for Russian democracy over the past decade, made a special trip to Washington last week to deliver this message: The U.S.-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia is a boon to the forces of darkness in Russia.

Making the rounds of cable networks and radio talk shows, Murashev called for an end to the aerial assault, which he said generates rising popular support for Communist, ultra-nationalist and other anti-democratic elements in the former Soviet Union. His appeal struck a responsive chord with friendly members of Congress, but the policy-makers in the Clinton administration and their bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill resist such arguments.

The foreign policy establishment is so preoccupied with righting ethnic wrongs in one small province of one small Balkan state that it is paying little attention to the future of the world's second-ranking nuclear power. The feckless effort to micromanage Kosovo has so far resulted in rising global anti-Americanism from Moscow to Beijing.

This is the latest setback in trying to establish the firm basis for a democratic Russia. Murashev has pursued that dream since cracks in Soviet totalitarianism first appeared 10 years ago. I met him in Moscow in 1990, when, as a 32-year-old scientist and a Christian, he defeated three Communist candidates for election to the Supreme Soviet. He was a leader in the parliamentary faction that was guided by persecuted nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. He then served briefly as police commissioner of Moscow and most recently lost his seat in the Duma with the breakup of reformist forces in the chaos of today's Russian politics.

For the long haul, Murashev is still optimistic about the triumph of democracy and true -- not crony -- capitalism. But for the short run, he is gloomy -- especially since the attack on Yugoslavia. "This confirms what the Communists and the extremists have been saying about NATO for years: that they are against us and our friends," he told me.

Accompanying Murashev to Washington was Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow (Russia's first private college). As a nuclear physicist in the 1970s, he was stripped of research and teaching positions for criticizing Soviet policy. Last week, he described a group of young people in Moscow protesting NATO bombing by carrying a poster saying: "Goodbye, America, Ideal of Freedom." One young man told Lozansky that "wittingly or unwittingly, America helps the red-brown [Communist-nationalist] coalition to win the Duma elections and enter the Kremlin."

"Each day of bombing brings this coalition closer to power," commented Lozansky. The two leading candidates to succeed Boris Yeltsin -- the corrupt Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, and the authoritarian Gen. Alexander Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk -- are living off public anger expanded by the Chinese embassy fiasco.

President Yeltsin, who in the early '90s was embraced by Murashev as leader of the reformers, faces imminent impeachment proceedings by the Communist-dominated Duma as he alternates between physical decrepitude and violent threats against NATO. His current favorite lieutenant is newly designated Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, a former police general and KGB political commissar. Known as the "butcher of Chechnya" for his brutal policies in fighting that province's insurrection, his is an extreme nationalist voice at Yeltsin's ear.

State Department diplomats never cottoned to the Russian reformers and are not much impressed by the warnings of Murashev and Lozansky. More surprising, Sen. Richard Lugar, long one of the most thoughtful and sensitive Republican voices on foreign policy, complains that the reformers "have been telling us that . . . for two years. It doesn't matter what we do."

Still, Lugar added in a CNN interview, "they're right in a way" because "this bombing has hit a nerve" in Russia with more than Communists and nationalists. The senator, who has advocated a ground campaign, then declared that the problem was "a war in which you constrain yourself just to bombing."

This formulation echoes the misplaced emphasis of U.S. policy on demonizing a petty dictator like Slobodan Milosevic while ignoring the truly dangerous people threatening to move into the Kremlin (not to mention the boost for Chinese hard-liners). There is more justification for opposing this war than distrust and dislike of Bill Clinton.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.