Rudderless Russia Power vacuum: Yeltsin's absence underscores fragility of the new system.

November 04, 1995

THROUGHOUT ITS history, Russia has required strong leaders because any weakness at the center of power has usually led to disorder or confusion. This is the situation today. With Boris N. Yeltsin, the country's first post-communist

president, gravely ill, Moscow is a hotbed of rumors and conspiracy theories.

Russians have a tendency to overdramatize and they often assume the worst. This can be seen in their appraisal of things that have happened in his absence. Like the disqualification of the reformist Yabloko party from next month's parliamentary election on a mere legal technicality. That decision was a triumph of bureaucratic nitpickers.

The bans on the pro-Western Yabloko ("Apple") and reactionary-communist Derzhava ("Great Power") parties may be worrisome because of their arbitrariness. The point to remember, however, is that both decisions could be and were appealed. Indeed, Russia's Supreme Court yesterday lifted the ban on Derzhava's election participation.

Post-communist Russia lacks many of the institutions and laws that would safeguard stability in governmental crises. The Yeltsin illness comes at a particularly unfortunate time. An election campaign is in full swing, the atmosphere is heated and contentious.

The health of Russia's top leaders has always been a closely guarded secret. That explains some of the confusion about Mr. Yeltsin's condition. There is no question he is a seriously ill man. But because he may still think about himself as a possible candidate for re-election, his aides -- particularly his security adviser, Maj. Gen. Alex Korzhakov -- want to manipulate the situation so as to keep all the options open.

If the president becomes permanently incapacitated, his duties would be assumed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who already is running the day-to-day government. He is a technocrat and not a charismatic leader. Yet Mr. Chernomyrdin has been a steadying influence during the often erratic Yeltsin rule. Russia could do worse than have him as a caretaker in this time of

uncertainty.

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