Boris Yeltsin's most recent stay in the hospital, which ended Jan. 20 when the Russian president moved to his country house, has altered some key political calculations and set off a controlled scramble for post-Yeltsin power.
The continuing delicacy of President Yeltsin's health and his long absences from the Kremlin have sharpened the possibility that the next presidential election could be held almost anytime between three months from now and the constitutional end of Yeltsin's term in the year 2000.
No other major players have been as blunt as former security chief Alexander Lebed when he told reporters earlier this month that the next presidential election would be held no later than this spring, and he would win. But Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow, another serious potential contender, flew to the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet, to argue that this city should rightly be part of Russia - a popular nationalist theme. The trip was widely seen as a stepped up effort by Mr. Luzhkov to enhance his national profile for a run at the presidency.
Mr. Lebed is by far the most popular politician in Russia according to opinion surveys, although he is feared by the political and financial establishment here. If a presidential election were held in coming months, Lebed would be the man to beat.
This prospect that Lebed, or potentially the Communist-nationalist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, could become the next president of Russia relatively soon has focused the minds of many in the current political and economic elite who are Yeltsin backers.
"It's clear they know they have to think beyond Yeltsin now," says a Western diplomat who studies Russian politics closely.
The Yeltsin camp is making what is widely assumed to be a preemptive strike against a campaign by retired General Lebed.
The respected Sunday television news program "Itogi" has been carrying out an investigation purporting to link ousted Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovyets to organized criminals in the aluminum industry. The allegations are old news, so "Itogi" - a steadfast supporter the Yeltsin administration - is assumed to be reviving them because Mr. Soskovyets is one of the primary potential financial backers of a Lebed campaign.
Some in the Communist opposition, meanwhile, want Yeltsin out soon. The Duma, or lower house of parliament, is scheduled Jan. 22 to take up a resolution to impeach Yeltsin for health reasons.
THE Communist strategy on this matter is not clear. The Duma legal department ruled last week that such a resolution would not be binding, and the Duma's Communist leadership dropped it. But Viktor Ilyukhin, a prominent Communist deputy, is bringing it forward anyway.
Some observers see an advantage for the Communists in holding elections as soon as possible. Their electorate is aging, their coalition is gradually splitting, and economic distress is gradually easing. But others see the Communists avoiding early elections because Lebed has already won over the affections of many of their potential voters.
Still recuperating from heart surgery in November, Yeltsin just finished spending 10 days in the hospital for treatment of double pneumonia. Since he was reelected in July, he has spent only a few weeks in his Kremlin office. The Russian Constitution requires a new election to be held within three months of the time the president can no longer fulfill his duties for health reasons.