Russia's future seems to rest between two equally charismatic and fascinating figures - president Boris Yeltsin and the head of his Security Council, Gen. Alexander Lebed, whose speedy climb up the power pyramid no one so far has been able to stop.
"Czar Boris," as Russians say with admiration or irony, had the resolve to win the presidential mandate he had been seeking. But he lacks the physical strength to fulfill the mandate. He decided on heart surgery, sending waves of uneasiness through the political establishment of a nuclear power still struggling with instability - and to a watching world.
Should Mr. Yeltsin be determined unable to serve, Russians will face new presidential elections after a three-month period during which the supreme authority will be in the hands of the prime minister.
Then voters will most probably have to choose between Mr. Lebed, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who dreams of revenge after losing the presidential election.
Superstar Lebed is widely seen as Yeltsin's most likely successor (Yeltsin once hinted he considered Lebed his heir). He has charisma, resolve, and stubbornness. He has never been associated with corruption and decay among the powerful. His blend of authoritarianism and moderate nationalism appeals to large numbers of voters.
The peace Lebed negotiated in Chechnya is supported by 70 percent of Russian voters. Therefore he can not only rely on Yeltsin's supporters but presumably take away large parts of the electorate from the Communists and nationalists.
As of today, neither Mr. Chernomyrdin nor Mr. Zyuganov seems able to beat Lebed. The prime minister is the embodiment of continuity and stability, but not charisma. His ratings even in the best times did not exceed 5 to 6 percent. He seems accustomed to being No. 2. When Yeltsin undergoes surgery he will pass his power to no one but Chernomyrdin. But voters will hardly cast their ballots for him.
Zyuganov, handicapped by his presidential election defeat, has to keep a low profile. Communists hope to recover by winning the regional elections, which started in early September and will last until December.
The Communists are the most important faction in the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament. They thirst to establish control of the Council of Federation, the upper chamber, too.
But the first results of the elections are discouraging for the Communists. They were reputed to have strong positions in Saratov, an important city on the Volga. But their candidate received only 16 percent of the vote. The incumbent governor, appointed by Yeltsin, won by a landslide.
According to forecasts, the Communist Party will capture no more than 10 of the 52 governors' seats being contested. None of this helps make Zyuganov a front-runner in case of a presidential race.
General Lebed also has limitations. He has no strong political party or movement behind him. He is sincerely disliked by the Moscow bureaucracy as an arrogant newcomer who does not care to pay attention to other important players. The army top brass hates him for signing what they see as Russia's military capitulation in Chechnya. His relations with other top figures are at best neutral. When negotiating with the Chechen rebels, Lebed acted on his own without much regard to what the Kremlin or the White House (the seat of the Russian government) had to say about his actions. All this makes Lebed rather vulnerable.
The general's main strength lies in the weakness of the present regime. Anyone could have achieved the kind of peace Lebed signed in Chechnya (end of military actions in exchange for Russia's military evacuation from the breakaway republic) - but no one dared to do it.
This points to a vacuum of political will in today's Russia. While Yeltsin filled this vacuum before, now Lebed strives to take over.
If Lebed manages to solve the Chechnya crisis without letting Chechnya secede from the Russian Federation, he will become an uncontested leader. If military actions resume, he can blame his opponents in the government and the military and leave the Kremlin slamming the door. In this case, Lebed will become an important pole of attraction for all those dissatisfied with Yeltsin and scared by the Communists.
But if Chechnya breaks away from Russia, Lebed's victory can turn into a political disaster for him. The agreement he signed with the rebels leaves it to them whether Chechnya would stay part of the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, the fighters are definite: They want complete independence. If they get it before the next elections, Lebed could be finished as a political leader. He will be attacked by the press and political figures who will not pardon his arrogance and quick success. As a result Lebed's popularity is likely to plummet.
Russia's further disintegration is possible. If other peoples of the Northern Caucasus are tempted to follow the Chechens' example, Russia might lose control over the whole Northern Caucasus. And it is Lebed who will be blamed.
Lebed took the risk of solving the Chechen crisis, but he became hostage to his solution. His political future hangs on Chechnya, as Yeltsin's hangs on the outcome of his surgery. If the power vacuum is not filled soon, no one knows what Russia's future will be.
*Alexei K. Pushkov is director of political and foreign affairs at Russian Public Television and foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow News Weekly.