Democracy Jells As Yeltsin Returns

Once again, Boris Yeltsin has bounced back. His return to his Kremlin office today after months in hospitals and sanatoriums ends a test of the country's fragile, three-year-old Constitution, shoring up Russian democracy a little further in the process.

Mr. Yeltsin's lengthy absence raised the specter of a constitutional crisis in what is still not a fully formed democracy. But in the end, the episode has better defined and established the constitutional procedures designed to keep power democratic.

In fact, Russia's political institutions proved remarkably stable during Yeltsin's absence. The Communist-dominated legislature refrained from sharp attacks on the presidency while Yeltsin was away and even passed his proposed federal budget last week.

And the Communist-nationalist opposition demonstrated through this period that while it is sharply critical of Yeltsin's governance, it is no longer attacking the basic institutions of Russian democracy.

Because of health problems, the president of the world's largest country (by land mass) has barely been seen publicly - except in carefully controlled TV appearances - since before his reelection in July. In September, his physician questioned whether he would even be healthy enough to undergo a planned heart operation. This, in turn, raised speculation that Yeltsin would never recover his capacity to actively govern.

But in televised comments Friday, Yeltsin said he would be back at his Kremlin desk at 9 o'clock this morning ready to work. He implied he was back in robust form. "The country needs an active, energetic president, especially now," he said.

Who was running Russia?

In August, questions about who was running the Kremlin pervaded Moscow political circles. Then-secretary of the Russian Security Council, Alexander Lebed, was the one political figure most blatantly seeking to broaden his authority during Yeltsin's illness.

He quickly became, as well, the most popular politician in the country for his success at ending the war in Chechnya. But when Yeltsin fired him for his inability to work within a team, Mr. Lebed disappeared from the public scene without posing any challenges to the constitutional order.

As the certainty of Yeltsin's heart operation neared, questions arose about the succession to power when Yeltsin was incapacitated. Yeltsin helped to settle the issue by establishing a precedent. Weeks before his operation in November, he issued a decree passing most of his presidential powers to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The handoff was smooth and noncontroversial. Russian analysts say that it helped to strengthen the Constitution as the basis for the legitimacy of power in future transfers.

What he faces now

Yeltsin returns to a massive coal-miners' strike, many wages and pensions owed from the federal budget that have not been paid in months, and murderous provocations threatening the fragile peace in Chechnya. He is promising action on all these fronts, as well as launching military reform.

"The last months have come as a test of our Constitution and the maturity of democracy in Russia, and our society successfully has passed it," Yeltsin said. "This proves once again that we're on the right track."

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