Looking like Chernenko Yeltsin's health: While ordinary Russians seem unconcerned, the outside world worries.

July 18, 1996

WHEN BORIS N. Yeltsin, after having abruptly canceled a previous appointment, finally emerged to greet Vice President Al Gore at a Moscow region sanatorium, the Russian president was so frail he bore an eerie resemblance to Konstantin Chernenko, one of his short-lived communist-era predecessors.

It will take more than Mr. Gore's buoyant assessment to assure the world that the man who was recently re-elected Russia's president is in sound health.

Few countries are as fixated on its leaders' health as the United States. France's long-time President Francois Mitterrand had cancer for many of the 14 years he was in office, yet his illness was seldom mentioned in public. Even the American preoccupation is of relatively recent origin: The seriousness of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fatal illness toward the end of World War II -- as well as the polio that left him in a wheelchair -- never became an issue.

Mr. Yeltsin's poor health has not prevented him from revamping the government. He named Anatoly Chubais as chief of staff, disproving rumors that the privatization czar and one-time vice premier had fallen out of favor. But as if to balance the appointment of Mr. Chubais, a prominent reformer liberal, Mr. Yeltsin yesterday chose Gen. Igor Rodionov to be the new defense minister. As the latter appointment strengthens the hand of the Yeltsin national security chief, former Gen. Alexander Lebed, it will do nothing to end speculation about Kremlin power struggles and intrigues in Mr. Yeltsin's absence.

Mr. Yeltsin is such a tough survivor that it is far too early to write him off. In fact, by creating rival camps within the Kremlin leadership he seems determined to keep the power-hungry on their toes and off balance. This kind of governance may be politically cunning. The downside is that it tends to send conflicting signals to Russians as well as foreigners at a time when strong, unified leadership is needed.

The final two decades of communism showed that a well-oiled Kremlin power apparatus could make everything appear relatively normal even when illness caused a leadership vacuum at the top. Yet such a vacuum contributed to a feeling of inertia and stagnation that gradually engulfed the country. Post-communist Russia, in its formative years, cannot afford a period of confused rule.

Pub date: 7/18/96

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