MOSCOW — When Russian voters put Boris Yeltsin back into the Kremlin for another term of office two months ago, they thought they were choosing a president. Instead, they find, they elected the Invisible Man. Mr. Yeltsin has appeared only once in public since then.
In addition, Yeltsin announced on Thursday that he would undergo surgery by the end of this month to correct an unspecified heart ailment. The admission ended weeks of speculation about his health, but suggested that the president could be out of action for an extended period, underlining doubts about exactly who is ruling Russia.
"It is more mysterious than ever," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center. "Practically none of his close associates are in contact with him."
Only two men claim to be in touch with the reclusive president, currently resting at a country residence some 60 miles north of Moscow: Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and chief of staff Anatoly Chubais. Between them, they appear to have concentrated most of the power of the state in their hands.
Alexander Lebed, meanwhile, who rocketed to preeminence last June as presidential security adviser, still cannot get a phone call through to Yeltsin to report on how he ended the war in Chechnya last week.
But many analysts here say that even though Yeltsin has health problems, he is still in good enough shape to pull the strings. "Boris Yeltsin has a very particular way of ruling," says Yevgeny Kozhokhin, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. "It is not new that from time to time he goes absent. This goes back to the beginning of his presidency."
After an energetic reelection campaign during which he glowed with dynamic good health, Yeltsin seemed to go into a decline in late June. Until yesterday's television interview announcing the surgery, Yeltsin's aides had been insisting that he simply needed a good rest after the elections. "We tend to forget that the president is also an ordinary person who has the right to have a holiday," Mr. Chubais said Wednesday.
Chubais is seen by some Kremlin watchers as the man really running things in Russia, since he holds the key to Yeltsin's door, controlling all access to the president.
"His influence comes through his access ... compared with other peoples' inability to get in to see Yeltsin," says one Western diplomat.
Since taking over as chief of staff in July, after running Yeltsin's campaign, Chubais has insisted that all presidential decrees must now pass across his desk. One that slipped through last month while he was on holiday, reforming the tax code, will be countermanded, Chubais said Wednesday, despite having been signed by the president.
Chubais's authority, however, depends entirely on Yeltsin, while Mr. Chernomyrdin, as prime minister, has his own independent power base in the government. "Chubais appears to be ruling on behalf of the president, but he probably doesn't have enough levers for that," suggests Alexander Tsipko, a political analyst. "He cannot control the Interior Ministry or the KGB or the Defense Ministry. Real power is in Chernomyrdin's hands."
This, of course, gives Chernomyrdin the advantage in his increasingly open struggle with Mr. Lebed to succeed Yeltsin, should the opportunity arise, since Lebed has no real structures to support him except for the Security Council.
Strange though it may seem only two months after presidential elections, Yeltsin's illness has made the presidential succession the top issue in Russian politics, and the jockeying for position is already affecting policy.
Chechnya, for example, has become a political football, with Lebed using his apparent success in ending the war there as a platform from which to appeal to public opinion, while his rivals - notably Chubais and Chernomyrdin - have voiced reservations about the peace accord the former general signed.
Yeltsin, meanwhile, who raised Lebed so high so fast, has been silent about his protg's achievement. Lebed says that is because the president is being suffocated inside "an information vacuum."
Chubais, on the other hand, says his master's reticence "is no accident."
It has always been Yeltsin's style to play his leading associates off against each other, veering from one set of advisers to another and changing course with the political winds, points out Gleb Pavlovsky, a newspaper publisher.