Russia on auto-pilot Yeltsin inaugurated: President starts second term by disappearing from public view.

August 10, 1996

BORIS N. YELTSIN's serious health problems were apparent, after his second-term inauguration in the Kremlin yesterday, when he disappeared from public view and went on a vacation that may last for two months. As the bloody Chechnya war intensifies and Russia's awesome economic problems require dynamic action, the president will be out of action.

People in power have always been so far removed from the common folk that ordinary Russians tend to regard this kind of a situation more sanguinely than foreigners. They know that for several years under Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko the Kremlin bureaucracy kept the country running even though the leader of the day was in no position to govern. Of course, in the end the Soviet Union collapsed, largely because of the stagnation that such rudderless leadership produced.

The situation in today's Russia is no less alarming. As the strong voter support of the communists' presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov showed, millions of Russians see little hope in the country's new free-market economic system. If anything, things have worsened since the July 3 presidential election. After not having been paid for up to six months, coal miners in Russian Far East are mutinous. So far, the top leadership in Moscow has tended to regard this as a local problem without recognizing that millions of Russians share the coal miners' agony and financial hardship.

A peculiar but understandable political pattern developed in Russia during the Andropov and Chernenko years. When the top leader disappeared from public view for extended periods of time, all kinds of rumor-mongering followed. A perceptible power vacuum developed. By the time Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a perfectly fit man, ascended to the Kremlin, talk of power intrigues -- and actual plotting -- started every time he left Moscow for a vacation.

Mr. Yeltsin begins his second term at a time when rival Kremlin factions are locked in a struggle for power and possible succession. None of this bodes well for Russia, or for a leader solidly backed by the United States.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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