President Boris Yeltsin, preparing to undergo heart surgery, took a major step toward a transfer of power on Sept. 9 by handing responsibility for national security and law enforcement temporarily to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
This is an unprecedented step for Russian democracy as it begins to formalize procedures that are only vaguely outlined in the 1993 Russian Constitution and have never been practiced.
In a country that in recent weeks has been wracked with rumors of power struggles and open jockeying for position among senior officials, with Mr. Yeltsin rarely in public view, this step is "an important development and a stabilizing factor in Russian democracy," says a Western diplomat here.
Yeltsin wrote a memorandum on Sept. 9 that all defense and security agencies shall report to the prime minister on matters requiring presidential decisions. His office announced the memorandum the next day. Yeltsin is already on vacation and presumably will remain on vacation until some point after his heart surgery at the end of this month.
The responsibilities he has handed over include a substantial chunk of his presidential powers, but do not include the nuclear "button" or the right to issue decrees. Presidential decrees have the force of law, unless they contradict parliamentary laws or the Constitution.
Diplomats here speculate that Yeltsin's health may have forced him to withdraw from day-to-day work, even in advance of his operation.
But the transfer is also a mark of greater confidence in democratic processes and institutions among Yeltsin's inner circle, says political analyst Andrei Piontkowski. He notes that Yeltsin has withdrawn from public with serious health problems many times in recent years, most recently last fall, but never was willing to set up any transfers of power.
One immediate effect of the step was to bolster the political and bureaucratic clout of Mr. Chernomyrdin. National security chief Alexander Lebed has seized a tremendous amount of political clout recently as he has taken over responsibility for ending the war in Chechnya. At times, it has appeared that Yeltsin could barely manage the booming ex-general. Yeltsin's memorandum puts Chernomyrdin directly over Mr. Lebed's entire range of responsibilities.
This gives Chernomyrdin a powerful "new tool to use in managing Lebed," says a diplomat.
More important, Yeltsin's memorandum strengthens constitutional democracy in Russia by more clearly defining it in practice.
The Russian Constitution states that in any case where the president is unable to fulfill his duties, they shall be temporarily delegated to the prime minister.
But the Constitution does not define the incapacity of the president or set up any mechanism for a transfer of power. Yeltsin took that step himself with the memorandum, which clearly follows the spirit and letter of the Constitution.
The move leaves many questions unanswered. Other steps may follow, such as handing over other powers. This is clearly a partial transfer of power that falls well short of what the Constitution envisions. It is also not clear how the transfer ends.
Although a number of such points are still unclear, observers here see Yeltsin's move as a step toward resolving them and beginning to set precedents.
In a sort of counterpoint, as if Yeltsin wanted to defy any notion that he was incapacitated, his press secretary Sept. 10 announced a series of instructions from Yeltsin on military management and spending matters. Yeltsin requested reports and said he may hold Defense Council meetings during his vacation.