MOSCOW — Boris Yeltsin is out of action yet again, perhaps until the end of the month.
And as he lies bedridden, his country is drifting into policy doldrums that may spell trouble at home and abroad. The Russian leader managed only two weeks of work after returning to the Kremlin before Christmas with a pledge to be "the strong president that Russia needs." And his renewed absence - coming after heart surgery in November - has created uncertainty over a range of key pending questions: How fiercely will Moscow react to NATO expansion later this year? How should the Kremlin handle the winner of this month's presidential elections in Chechnya? Where are billions of dollars to be found to pay workers' back wages?
A charge that President Yeltsin is not well enough to rule properly, made by one of his harshest critics - former Security Council secretary Gen. Alexander Lebed - appears to be finding an increasing echo among the general public. "If he were my husband, I'd tell him to stop work and look after himself," says pensioner Nina Ushakova, who says she has lost her sympathy with the president.
But neither Yeltsin's supporters nor his enemies expect him to step down voluntarily, whatever his health. They point to the way in which he hid a heart attack from the electorate between the first and second round of the presidential election last year as evidence of how badly he wants to stay in office. Nor is there much pressure on Yeltsin, except from General Lebed, to step down.
"We can do nothing but wait until he dies or recovers," says Alexei Podberyozkin, top adviser to Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. The Russian Constitution, written to order for Yeltsin three years ago, gives the president overwhelming powers, and makes his removal against his will almost impossible.