Yeltsin to take oath for 2nd presidential term Illness, Chechen war shadow ceremony

August 09, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- First elected as a colorful hero of democracy, President Boris N. Yeltsin is to take the oath of office today for a second four-year term with the stain of war on his hands and concern that he may be too ill to see his reform program through to the turn of the century.

Scaled down to an indoor Kremlin ceremony for reasons related to finances and the president's poor health, the inauguration marks the first time a Russian leader will have taken office after a democratic re-election.

But it also takes place after the resumption of battles in the breakaway Chechnya, as rebels began an offensive calculated to embarrass Yeltsin.

Yeltsin was a popular bon vivant when he took the oath of office in 1991. He takes oath today as a less popular, seldom-seen figure who won re-election in part because Russians were determined not to allow a victory by his Communist opponent, Gennady A. Zyuganov.

"Yeltsin will be regarded as a tragic figure," said Andrei 'u Piontkowsky, an analyst with the Center for Strategic Studies here. "He saved Russia from communism three times" -- by making a dramatic stand against hard-line coup plotters in 1991, forcibly ousting some Communists from the Parliament in 1993 and winning re-election last month over Zyuganov.

"But he's the person with No. 1 responsibility for the bloodshed in Chechnya, and it's more than enough to destroy his presidency" -- in the same way the war in Vietnam destroyed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Piontkowsky said.

In five years as Russia's first elected leader, Yeltsin oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of oppressive institutions. He launched a vast economic reform program of undoing price controls and privatization that has created poles of wealth and poverty.

As Chechnya acted with increasingly independence, he ordered federal troops there and began an inclusive war. And during these years, his health has declined.

But for the Chechen tragedy, today might be considered a bright page in history books. One of Yeltsin's main campaign promises was to end the Chechen war, a conflict that has cost 50,000 lives.

The Kremlin brought the Chechen rebel leadership to Moscow in June with a peace agreement. But Russian troops violated the pact by resuming air raids practically the moment polls closed. The renewed fighting, which has cost hundreds of lives, is the rebels' bitter payback.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin disappeared from public view just before the July 3 vote and didn't return to the Kremlin until Tuesday.

His election campaigning, Yeltsin's aides say, has led to "colossal fatigue" that will force Yeltsin to take a two-month vacation after the Duma, which is the lower house of Parliament, votes tomorrow on his choice of prime minister.

Yeltsin is expected to keep Prime Minister Victor S. Chernomyrdin. The Communist leadership, whose party dominates the Duma, has met with Chernomyrdin several times since the election and worked out a formula for approving his nomination.

"On one hand it will be difficult for [the Communists] to approve Chernomyrdin; on the other hand, they are not interested in having the Duma dissolved and standing for re-election," said Victor Sheines, a centrist Duma deputy. If the Duma doesn't approve the prime minister, the constitution calls for the president to dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

The new government is expected to draw on young reformers with a grounding in market economics. Economic stabilization is Yeltsin's biggest long-term goal, as it will be key to maintaining international loans and foreign investment here.

"The hard decisions of economic restructuring are all ahead, such as closing unprofitable factories, ownership issues and the whole structure of legislation for business," a Western diplomat said. "It's going to be a long march, though it's safe to say now that there will be no turning back to communism."

The wild card in the Kremlin remains former Gen. Alexander I. Lebed. Yeltsin named the tough, law-and-order figure his national security chief after Lebed won 14 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. The general then made statements about his hopes for being granted authority in areas ranging from the economy to social programs. But since Yeltsin's election victory, Lebed has been quieted, and the extent of his influence has been hard to gauge.

A test of the Kremlin leadership will come in the fall when regional elections are held. New governors will be chosen in 50 of Russia's 89 regions. The contests are expected to set Yeltsin supporters, once again, against Communists and their allies.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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