Russia's fateful day Hard choice: Voters have to decide between ailing Yeltsin and an unrepentant Leninist.

July 03, 1996

FIVE YEARS after the collapse of communism, Russia may have many outward trappings of an open society but it is far from a normal Western-style democracy. Just consider the bizarre disappearance of President Boris N. Yeltsin and the difficult-to-believe official assurances that he just lost his voice and had to cancel prior commitments on the eve of today's crucial run-off election.

In a truly open country, the media and the voters would demand full disclosure. Not in Russia, though, where it has for centuries been an accepted practice to utter untruths and have them not challenged by others, even though they are easily recognized as lies. Thus, little has changed since a perceptive French traveler, Marquis de Custine, observed 157 years ago: "In order to live in Russia, dissimulation is not enough; feigning is indispensable. To conceal is useful; to feign is essential."

As voters across Russia's 11 time zones go to the polls today, they must be utterly confused. Mr. Yeltsin, who has previously survived two serious heart attacks, clearly is not well. While Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, under the constitution, would step in as the interim executive if Mr. Yeltsin were to die, FTC Gen. Alexander Lebed, the president's new national security czar, makes pronouncements that suggest he views himself as the Kremlin heir.

All this has turned Moscow into a hot bed of rumors. There is speculation that the ousting of a number of key Yeltsin aides last month -- including Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, his shadowy security chief and drinking buddy -- may not have removed them from the inner circle but was done for appearance's sake to boost the president's re-election chances. General Korzhakov was known to have urged that the run-off election between Mr. Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, the communist leader, be canceled. The question is: Did General Korzhakov know something about the president's deteriorating health that has only now become apparent to the outside world?

In his short tenure as the Kremlin's No. 2 official, General Lebed has emerged as a man of narrow vision, who is intolerant of foreign ideas. As they go to the polls, anti-communist democrats face a quandary. They cannot vote for Mr. Zyuganov. But they have less and less reason to vote for the Yeltsin leadership team, either.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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