RUMORS about Boris Yeltsin's health - political as well as physical - drift about this capital city these days with the constancy of the snow flurries of a Russian winter.
``Yeltsin really has weakened recently,'' says Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the country's leading elite newspaper. He cites an unnamed high government official who compares the Russian president to former Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev at the beginning of his last stage in power - his health failing and his grip over the country starting to slip.
But as Mr. Tretyakov is the first to admit, such talk about Mr. Yeltsin is hardly new. Surges of such rumors have waxed and waned many times in the past, usually associated with the president's disturbing pattern of rising to battle at times of crisis and then slipping afterward into long periods of passivity and retreat from political struggle.
It happened earlier this spring, when the president fought and won a crucial April referendum on his presidency but then failed to follow up his victory. He fell into a long period of political slumber, broken abruptly in late September when he issued his decree dissolving the antireform parliament.
Now some see a similar process. Ever since the Dec. 12 elections, when Communists and extreme Russian nationalists captured about half the popular vote, the president has appeared to be adrift. During the process of forming the new government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin failed to protect the two key reformers in the Cabinet, Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar and Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov. To many observers, this seems to confirm that Yeltsin has lost much of his authority.
And in a handful of public appearances, including a press conference, Yeltsin has appeared weak, prompting talk of a serious illness, of heavy use of pain-killing drugs to deal with a chronic back problem, and the usual gossip about his ``drinking problem.''
Meanwhile, Premier Chernomyrdin, a stolid bureaucrat who worked his way up through the Soviet gas industry, is now widely touted as the new political star. Many consider him the leading candidate of the apparat, as the state bureaucracy is called, to oppose extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in presidential elections scheduled for 1996.
Yeltsin, however, has a habit of confounding those who predict his political demise. And in another sense, the Russian leader never has been quite as strong as many, including his own aides, made him out to be.
According to one countertheory now making the rounds in the capital, Yeltsin is simply tacking in response to the political winds. In this view, he read the election results correctly as a repudiation of the unpopular radical reform policies of Mr. Gaidar and the pro-Western liberals. Despite passage of a new Constitution giving him great powers relative to the new parliament, Yeltsin cannot afford a new, early confrontation with the legislature, where Communists and nationalists are in control.
So Yeltsin is making a tactical step backward, allowing formation of a more monochrome, conservative government that is acceptable to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, and that will try a different economic policy. If this new government succeeds, the theory goes, Yeltsin would get the political and economic stability he desires and could grab the credit for himself as well.
But if Chernomyrdin and friends fail, with hyperinflation setting in, the reformers can be called back. Lending support to this theory, the president told Mr. Fyodorov ``not to go too far away,'' suggesting he will call the reformers back to office when it is politically acceptable to do so.
Such political adjustments are not new to Yeltsin. Within a few months of the radical reform policies embarked on in January 1992, he backtracked in response to heavy criticism from the then-parliament, the Congress of Peoples' Deputies. In May, Chernomyrdin and others entered the government as a concession to those forces. And again in December 1992, after the Congress voted down Gaidar as premier, Chernomyrdin was given the job. But Fyodorov was brought in as finance minister to balance him.
In reality, Yeltsin could never rule alone, even when he had tremendous powers to legislate by decree. He had to pay heed to parliament, but possibly more important, the Russian ruler was forced to yield to the power of the bureaucracy, whose numbers and strength are little changed from Soviet days.
``The president works in the framework of reality,'' commented Gaidar earlier this week. ``He isn't a czar, God, or even a general secretary. He has to take into account the balance of forces in society and think about stability.''
The flaw in the ``comeback'' strategy is serious, though, and already widely noted in Russian political circles. If these new ``reforms'' also fail, as most expect them to, and further economic and political chaos ensues, it will not be the liberals who inherit the political wind but their extreme nationalist and Communist foes.