A Troubled Russia Faces Four Months on Hold

Yeltsin's health makes decisive steps unlikely

The plans for Boris Yeltsin's heart operation now put him out of active duty for a total of roughly four months. Few doubt that his formal powers and administrative duties will be competently managed in that period by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais.

With public sympathy apparently swinging in President Yeltsin's favor, and with medical opinion giving him a very good prospect of full recovery, the nationalist-communist opposition is dropping any attempt to pressure him into stepping down.

But without the active political presence of Mr. Yeltsin, analysts see a Russian government with a weak base for taking any strong action in the economically critical coming months.

"Much depends on the president's health here," says national security chief Alexander Lebed. "Strong will has disappeared in the country" without an active Yeltsin to push for the solution of pressing problems.

Since Mr. Chubais can only act in Yeltsin's name, and any controversial moves would be challenged, politically difficult steps such as closing down bankrupt state enterprises and other tough restructuring steps will become even harder, notes one Western diplomat.

"It will be a brake on reform and what they can do," the diplomat says.

Yeltsin's hand may be missed in inside politics, as well. The jostling for position within the Kremlin, the seat of the presidential administration, and the White House, where the prime minister and cabinet are headquartered, is a hard-elbows, high-stakes struggle between personalities and interest groups where only Yeltsin has played referee.

Political wild card

The most unpredictable element is Mr. Lebed. He is a plainly ambitious, fast-moving politician whose popularity has risen quickly. He created a political party a few weeks ago. Already candidates have appeared in nearly every gubernatorial race around the country this fall claiming to be associated with Lebed, according to Sergei Kolmakov, a political analyst and former adviser to the Yeltsin campaign.

The military and defense-related interest groups in Russia, looking for a new champion since Yeltsin ousted hard-line aides in June, are beginning to gravitate toward Lebed.

One of those ousted aides, longtime Yeltsin bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, is running for the parliamentary seat Lebed vacated recently - with Lebed's public encouragement.

The circle surrounding Yeltsin now, says Mr. Kolmakov, is worried about how the balance of power within the Kremlin can accommodate Lebed and "the forces gathering around him."

Even in his less-than-vigorous condition of recent weeks, Yeltsin has been able to put the blustery Lebed in his place on occasion in a way that no one else yet has. "Without Yeltsin, the decisive factor is out of the game," Kolmakov says.

At least in the coming weeks, he says, the infighting in government will go quiet out of respect for the need to maintain stability. It will also be checked, he notes, by the prospect of Yeltsin's return to active leadership in a few months.

By yesterday, the communists and nationalists were backing away from any sort of attack on Yeltsin's fitness to govern. To call for his resignation now, says communist Duma deputy Viktor Sherelukha, "would be horribly inhumane."

Alexei Podberyozkin, leader of Spiritual Heritage, part of the Popular Patriotic Union that supported the candidacy of communist Gennady Zyuganov, insists that "no one in our union is discussing future presidential elections or the resignation of the president."

The coming months look to be difficult ones. Russia faces $7.5 billion in unpaid back wages, a figure growing by nearly $500,000 a month. Lebed warned this week that the Army was near mutiny over unpaid wages and miserable conditions. And Russia's near abroad is seeing growing instability, especially in Russia's close allies, Belarus and Armenia.

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