For the third time in three years, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was rushed to the hospital Monday with pneumonia--a serious illness that set in during a period of serious political uncertainty.
The illness, announced by presidential spokesman Dmitri D. Yakushkin, apparently was triggered in part by Yeltsin’s trip earlier this month to a summit with world leaders in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was roundly criticized for Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya.
Yeltsin’s sickness comes as Russia enters what is expected to be the most difficult stage of its operation to regain control over the separatist republic, and as Western criticism of the war mounts.
Yakushkin announced five days ago that Yeltsin had fallen ill with bronchitis, blaming it on the climate change between Istanbul and Moscow. He insisted that the illness was minor, saying the 68-year-old leader was being treated at home by family members with traditional Russian remedies--milk, honey and fruit preserves.
However, at some point Monday, Yeltsin apparently took a turn for the worse, and doctors concluded that his bronchitis had deepened into pneumonia, Yakushkin said. He added that the president was expected to be hospitalized for about a week.
This is Yeltsin’s third case of pneumonia, his fourth hospitalization this year and his 10th serious illness since being reelected in 1996. Since undergoing quintuple bypass heart surgery later that year, he has frequently suffered respiratory infections and once each winter has come down with pneumonia.
For the most part, the president’s illnesses no longer raise eyebrows in Russia. However, parliamentary elections are less than three weeks away, a vote that is widely seen as a kind of primary for the race to replace Yeltsin as president in June. The country’s political climate is increasingly feverish, and the president’s latest illness has reignited speculation that he is incapacitated or that aides may try to seize power.
Most analysts discount such rumors, noting that similar cycles of speculation have come to nought. “He has been hospitalized with the same problem before, and it never had any serious impact on either the political or economic situation in the country,” said Liliya F. Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Our president is already largely a symbolic figure rather than an active political leader.”
News of Yeltsin’s turn for the worse came just hours after the Kremlin broadcast footage of the president meeting with his chief of staff, Alexander S. Voloshin, at his country residence. Usually the Kremlin releases such images when officials are confident that the president is on the mend.
In the footage, Yeltsin is talking and gesturing, wearing a dark sweater and open-necked shirt. His complexion appears ruddy. The video clip was soundless; a TV commentator said the Kremlin cut the soundtrack because the president’s voice was hoarse.
Shevtsova also said Yeltsin has a habit of falling ill and retreating for medical treatment during military campaigns.
“I presume Yeltsin will be more comfortable in a hospital bed as the campaign in Chechnya enters its most important phase,” she said. “With Yeltsin sick in hospital, Prime Minister [Vladimir V.] Putin will hold all responsibility for all military mistakes and possible massive casualties this operation may claim.”
Last week, Russian forces began a fierce bombing campaign against Grozny in an effort to seize the Chechen capital and chase the rebels into their bases in the mountains.
Russian forces kept up the aerial bombardment Monday, flying about 60 sorties in 24 hours, according to the Itar-Tass news service. Nikolai P. Koshman, the Russian-appointed administrator for Chechnya, estimated that 45,000 to 55,000 civilians remain in Grozny. He said federal forces had opened an escape corridor for those who wish to flee, but he accused rebel fighters of blocking the route.
It is hard to gauge claims on the progress of the war because both sides tend to exaggerate their gains and underreport their losses. While Russian officials insist that they are making headway, Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, speaker of Chechnya’s parliament, said confidence is growing among the rebels in Grozny.
“For more than three weeks, Russian troops have been held near Grozny and they haven’t made any serious progress no matter how hard they tried,” Alikhadzhiyev said in Grozny. “The morale of the federal troops is withering very fast. Their soldiers are constantly hungry and cold. There are many cases now where Russian soldiers exchange their munitions for a piece of bread. This is a good sign of their growing demoralization.”
In Moscow, Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Norwegian foreign minister, pressed the Russian government to settle the conflict peacefully and abide by its agreement in Istanbul to permit him to visit Chechnya.
However, several hours of talks yielded no reported progress on either issue.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov dismissed suggestions that the OSCE mediate between the two sides and said it was too dangerous for Vollebaek to visit the war zone.
Chechnya declared independence in 1991 and fought a 21-month war to secede that ended in 1996 without a political settlement. Since then, the republic has run its own affairs, but the rebel government has lost credibility because of its inability to rein in kidnapping gangs or rebuild the economy.
Moscow’s new military campaign began nine weeks ago after the rebels led two incursions into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan and a series of bombs destroyed apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities, killing about 300 people. Russian officials blamed the bomb attacks on Chechens, while Chechen officials accuse Russian security services of carrying them out to provide a pretext for restarting the war.
Special correspondent Mayerbek Nunayev in Grozny contributed to this report.