How Russia Runs Without Yeltsin

On Nov. 5, and for some time afterward, Russia was in the hands of a new leader. President Boris Yeltsin temporarily relinquished his presidential powers while undergoing a heart operation. In a country with the most powerful nuclear arsenal outside the United States, an Army seething with discontent, nearly empty coffers, and a deeply divided society, a lot hangs on the outcome of Mr. Yeltsin's medical treatment.

Who is in charge of Russia while Yeltsin is incapacitated?

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is empowered to do anything that the president could normally do, including launch a nuclear strike. Seen as the safest pair of hands in Russia, though, Mr. Chernomyrdin is not expected to do anything rash during his brief moment of supreme authority.

Just before he was wheeled into the operating theater, Yeltsin's last act before surgery was to sign a decree. By so doing, he activated another decree - ready for the past five weeks - handing over full presidential powers to Chernomyrdin.

Aides say that one of Yeltsin's first acts on recovering from surgery, as soon as doctors permit, would be to sign those powers back to himself, in an indication of how closely he guards his decisionmaking authority. He may remain in intensive care until Nov. 7.

What happens if Yeltsin does not recover?

In that case, under the Constitution, Chernomyrdin keeps presidential powers for three months, until new presidential elections.

If this should happen, three candidates would be in the running:

*Chernomyrdin himself, the personification of moderation and stability, who is the choice of the political and economic establishment that unabashedly controls coverage in the broadcast media, as well as the financing of campaigns.

*The popular, lone bull, retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, who lately is the highest-rated politician in opinion polls.

*The well-organized nationalist-communist Gennady Zyuganov, who is the most proven vote-getter, having finished second to Yeltsin himself in the last election.

But quick elections would not especially suit Chernomyrdin and presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, who are now running things. The federal budget can hardly afford a new round of elections - because of the myriad promises to provide unpaid back wages and pensions often made during them. And the painful steps needed to push economic reform forward are all the harder in a preelection environment.

Besides, establishment types figure the longer they can put off the next election, the more the communist opposition will split apart from its nationalist allies and the more Mr. Lebed will fade from public view. Some observers suggest that Chernomyrdin and Mr. Chubais might seek to bend the Constitution to postpone elections. But they would be risking their legitimacy and an opposition outcry.

Is there danger of a military coup?

The Soviet, and now Russian, armed forces have generally been extremely reluctant to be dragged into political battles, and that is only one reason why few analysts think a coup is even a remote possibility.

Russian generals know that they don't have the skills needed to run the country, and even if some of them threw their weight behind one group of politicians or another, it seems very unlikely they could carry all their comrades with them.

Still smarting from their humiliation in Chechnya, Russian generals would not likely risk staining the Army's reputation even further in a dangerous gamble that would endanger stability rather than ensure it.

The mood in the military is ugly nonetheless. Morale has been sapped by a lack of funding, and the shortage of cash has become critical this year: Hundreds of thousands of officers and men have not seen a paycheck for months. Defense Minister Gen. Igor Rodionov warned last month of "uncontrollable developments" unless his men were paid.

Is the economy getting better?

The economy can only be seen in part, and the visible part is probably the least dynamic. By official figures, the Russian economy has not quite pulled out of its five-year nose dive yet, and output is still shrinking.

But the government has achieved a major economic victory, felt by everyone in Russia, in conquering inflation. For the past few months, inflation has been running at an annual rate of well below 20 percent. As recently as early 1995, it was more than 20 percent per month.

And the official figures for the Russian economy fail to capture a lot of the dynamism that is obvious from Moscow to Vladivostok, where the roads are increasingly jammed with cars and roadsides with bright advertisements. One scholar estimates that as much as 40 percent of the Russian economy is off the books, a higher figure even than for the shadow economy in Latin America. So no one really knows exactly how the economy is faring.

Could serious social unrest occur?

Russians' tolerance of ill-treatment is legendary, and the government has been fortunate to be able to count on their stoicism. Conditions that would make most other countries ripe for a social explosion are borne in Russia with great patience.

Workers are going on strike with increasing frequency - mainly to demand unpaid back wages - but they are not organized enough yet to make their muscle felt. A nationwide 'day of action' on Tuesday drew only spotty support and was widely ignored.

The only political group with the national reach to organize real opposition to the government is the Communist Party.

How much do ordinary Russians know and care about the president's health and its political ramifications?

The Kremlin is very far indeed from most Russians' lives, physically and mentally. Russian TV, closely controlled by the government for the most part, has carried none of the speculation on the president's health that has preoccupied the Western press.

All most Russians know is that the president was said to need heart surgery.

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