Russian political circles are suddenly grappling with the possibility of an extended period during which President Boris Yeltsin is barely able to carry on any of his functions as Russia's chief executive.
Those around Mr. Yeltsin, particularly the doctor planning surgery on his heart, are portraying the state of his health as more serious than previously thought. The doctor has raised doubts about whether Yeltsin's general health is strong enough to undergo the operation, at least in the next couple of weeks.
A medical concilium on the operation begins meeting tomorrow. An announcement of its decision on whether and when the operation will be performed is expected by the end of the week.
Postponement or cancellation of the operation would raise the prospect of months of what one analyst here calls a "symbolic Yeltsin presidency," where aides and the prime minister carry out most of the presidential duties on Yeltsin's behalf.
This prospect, in turn, creates a dangerous period for the stability of the "very shaky, fragile Russian democracy," says William Smirnov, section chief of the Institute on Law and State of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Speculation about the future of Yeltsin's presidency hangs largely on estimations of Yeltsin's legendary fighting spirit and how he would respond to the prospect of prolonged incapacity. Would he reject a "passive presidency" and resign before the opposition could force him out? Or would he refuse to give up hope and cling tenaciously to power?
The most stable outcome would be if Yeltsin begins recovering his vigor, with or without the operation, within a few weeks.
On the other hand, if he resigns, the country will immediately be thrust into another presidential campaign, with all the tumult that would bring.
But Russians are now realizing more clearly that they must prepare for less clean-cut outcomes, where Yeltsin retains his office but his capacity for work is dubious.
He could temporarily pass his powers to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, says political scientist Andrei Zagorsky, "or his circle can just say he's resting and working a few hours a day, which would be preferable to the people around him."
The entire political and economic establishment of Russia, in fact, would be so eager to avoid the instability of new elections, Mr. Smirnov says, that he reckons an incapacitated Yeltsin could carry on as president for as long as a year.
Three months from when?
The Russian Constitution requires that when persistent health problems prevent a president from carrying out his powers, then those powers shall be assigned to the prime minister. New elections shall be held within three months.
But the Constitution is vague about how to determine when a president is no longer carrying out his duties. No legislation has been enacted to clarify the process. Without such legislation, according to a member of the Constitutional Court, Ernest Amyetistov, Yeltsin himself must make the judgment on his own fitness for office by decree.
To a limited degree, Yeltsin already has. Early this month, he delegated an important chunk of his presidential authority over the defense and state security agencies to Mr. Chernomyrdin. Last week, he signed a decree making Chernomyrdin acting president if Yeltsin undergoes the operation.
The Communist Party, the dominant faction in the state Duma, or lower house of parliament, has been drafting legislation on presidential succession that would set up an independent medical panel to rule on the president's fitness for office.
The party plans to raise it as their first order of business when they return to session next week. But it is certain that neither Yeltsin nor Chernomyrdin in his stead would sign such a law, even if it passed the upper parliamentary chamber.
The delaying game
Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, expects that faced with incapacity, Yeltsin would resign. Yeltsin himself said on Sept. 5 that he would rather undergo the heart operation than perform his duties in a passive way, as his medical advisers say he must.
Other analysts disagree. The Russian elites would prefer to have Chernomyrdin managing a symbolic Yeltsin presidency for as long as possible, they say, on the theory that the more time passes, the less likely that Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov would win an election.