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John Kohan/Moscow

AFTER A WEEK IN ISOLATION IN MOScow’s Central Clinical Hospital, Boris Yeltsin finally made a public appearance, of sorts, last week. The Russian President, who was hospitalized two weeks ago for the second time in just over three months for what was described as “an insufficiency of oxygenated blood to the heart,” showed up on the evening news in a 40-sec. video clip produced by the Kremlin. Dressed in a blue, green and white track suit, the pale, puffy-faced President sat slumped in a chair next to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. In a slurred speech, Yeltsin explained that he “wasn’t feeling too bad” and considered himself “out of danger.” But the public-relations ploy did little to allay suspicions about the true state of the President’s health. For many Russians, it recalled the early 1980s, when the successive deaths of Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were all preceded by assurances from the Kremlin that they were in fine fettle.

Yeltsin is expected to stay in the hospital at least until the end of the month and follow that with two weeks of convalescence at a sanatorium. The U.S. has made a very private offer of medical assistance but so far has received no response. As next in line for the presidency, Chernomyrdin has been careful to affirm that Yeltsin remains fully in charge even while hospitalized. Still, the Defense and Interior ministers, together with the chiefs of the security services–the crucial power ministers, as they are called–as well as the Foreign Minister, have been reporting directly to the Prime Minister.

After close to 10 turbulent years of reform, Russians also have serious doubts that their country’s young democratic institutions can weather a transfer of power. Yeltsin’s unfinished scheme to create a presidential republic has resulted in a state as fragile as the health of its chief executive. Unresolved constitutional questions remain about how the country’s two-tier parliament should be formed. Although Russians will be going to the polls on Dec. 17 to elect deputies to the State Duma, the lower house, it still has not been decided whether the Federation Council, the upper house, should be a forum of regional leaders or senators elected directly by the people.

Now that Yeltsin’s future is clouded, next month’s vote looms even larger on the political calendar. The Russian Communist Party is leading in public-opinion polls and could forge a solid majority against Yeltsin’s reforms, if it joins forces with the Congress of Russian Communities, the party of General Alexander Lebed, whose patriotic views have made him the most popular candidate nationally. Yet currently the Communists seem to find this proposition far more enticing than Lebed, who has described his potential partners as “kind of slippery.”

With a weakened President, a new legislature packed with opposition deputies might be emboldened to win back powers lost in October 1993 when Yeltsin used the army to bring rebellious deputies into line. It will also enjoy constitutional protection from presidential dissolution for the first six months of its term. Presidential elections are now set for June 1996, and the new legislature will provide the ideal public forum for presidential hopefuls like Lebed, Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The parliamentary campaign got off to a stumbling start last week when the Central Electoral Commission refused to register the Yabloko bloc of economist Grigori Yavlinksy, citing a technicality: the group had violated election laws by dropping six names from its list of more than 200 candidates without supporting documents. The surprise decision to exclude the only reformist group in the present parliament with a serious chance to do well in the election set off an immediate firestorm of protest. Yavlinksy claimed that officials “in the top echelons of power” were taking advantage of the President’s illness to settle political scores. Chernomyrdin said the decision “damaged the whole election campaign and democracy in Russia.” The furor prompted the Kremlin to issue what was allegedly a sick-bed order from Yeltsin calling on the Central Electoral Commission to review its decision.

The commission also rejected the nationalist Derzhava movement of former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi for more flagrant infractions of the same rule that Yabloko violated. Both parties were subsequently reinstated by a ruling of the Russian Supreme Court, but the scandal underscored just how shaky the legal foundation was for Russia’s new electoral system. It also showed how, in the absence of clear signals from the top, loyal servants of the President’s, like commission chairman Nikolai Ryabov, could quickly move to assert their own personal authority by an overzealous interpretation of the rules.

Without clear constitutional guidelines about how to handle the power vacuum, there are certain to be palace intrigues ahead, as Kremlin bureaucrats, eager to strengthen the President’s failing grip on power, face a challenge from members of Chernomyrdin’s team, moving to assert their authority in anticipation of the day when their boss will be in charge. So, after a season of decline, the fine art of Kremlin watching may be poised for a comeback.

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