Yeltsin’s Health Status Clouds the Picture : Coming months are crucial to Russia’s political future

Russia’s President Boris N. Yeltsin spent a productive day in his hospital room Thursday, conferring with Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrov, signing decrees and vetoing a resolution passed by the Duma that called for lifting U.N. economic sanctions against Serbia. In all, a busy schedule for a man making good progress in recovering from the heart ailment that has laid him low for the second time in less than four months. Or so those around Yeltsin seem eager to have Russians believe.

When it comes to the real status of Yeltsin’s health, the truth may lie elsewhere. Last week a 40-second TV tape showing Yeltsin out of bed and conferring with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was meant to offer reassurance that the president was on the mend and on top of things. In fact, Yeltsin’s puffy face and slurred speech sent a quite different message. For some time there has been speculation about whether Yeltsin’s health would let him seek a second five-year term in next June’s presidential election. It’s not unreasonable now to wonder whether he will be able to finish out his first term.

CRUCIAL PERIOD: The period between now and next June could well determine whether Russia’s experiment with democratic government will endure. Never in its long history has Russia experienced a constitutional transfer of power through elections. Next year’s presidential election would be the first. Yeltsin, whose popularity had dropped sharply well before his most recent heart problems, is far from being a shoo-in for reelection. At this point no other prospective candidate can be considered an odds-on favorite. What looms is a multi-candidate contest among representatives of Russia’s fractionated, something-for-just-about-everyone political system, among whom Communist and right-wing hard-liners could make the strongest showing.

The election could actually come sooner. Under the constitution, Chernomyrdin would become president if Yeltsin was unable to continue, but within three months he would have to call a presidential election. Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, would be a strong candidate. Retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, an exponent of patriotism and discipline, might prove to be even more popular. The ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky could be expected to again offer his dangerously loony views. A responsible democrat like economist Grigory Yavlinsky would appeal to moderate centrists. But right now, given the chaotic state of Russian politics and the pain and frustrations produced by wrenching economic changes, the odds probably would favor a candidate who was less than enthusiastic about strengthening representative government and pushing ahead with economic reforms.


COMMUNIST STRENGTH: The national legislative elections, now just five weeks away, might well signal how the presidential vote will go. More than 40 parties will seek seats in the Duma, Russia’s parliament. Only those parties getting at least 5% of the votes will be represented in the assembly.

The most popular at present are the Communists, drawing support from the millions of pensioners whose standard of living has plummeted under the impact of freer prices and inflation, as well as from those who thrived under the stagnant economic predictability and imposed order of the immediate past.

So Russia remains an unresolved question, and that uncertainty deeply affects American policy-makers. Washington’s vision of a post-Cold War world includes the expectation of a high degree of cooperation with Moscow in addressing both bilateral and global issues. With Yeltsin perhaps fading from the scene, with more rigid and ideological rule perhaps just over the horizon, the need to re-examine that expectation has taken on some urgency.