Seldom been a lucky land. Today, at a time when...

RUSSIA HAS

September 07, 1996

RUSSIA HAS seldom been a lucky land. Today, at a time when its democratic reforms and fledgling free-market system would require a steady hand and commanding presence of a dynamic leader in the Kremlin, it is the country's fate to have an absent president facing heart surgery.

This is a thought-provoking situation. Unless Boris Yeltsin recovers and reasserts visible personal control of Russia's affairs, the danger exists that he will become a mere figurehead. So what's wrong with that? After all, that was the situation for years under Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

The difference is that under communist rule, the Politburo existed as a collective leadership group. Today, if the Kremlin's top leader becomes unfit to rule but not totally incapacitated, there is no comparable unified executive group. This can be seen from the coverage of the government's Russian Public Television: Whenever Mr. Yeltsin receives Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin or some other top official, such an administrative contact -- which would be totally routine and frequent in the West -- is treated as if the underling were a foreign envoy on a state mission.

Thus the danger exists that if Mr. Yeltsin becomes unable to rule actively, he will be retained in office but pushed aside by forces that will want to assure they will not lose their existing privileges in any future power struggle or election. In today's circumstances this means an active rivalry between Mr. Chernomyrdin and retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, Mr. Yeltsin's national security chief.

Mr. Chernomyrdin, a Soviet-era economic bureaucrat, clearly is the man favored by Russia's new ruling class, an alliance of industrial barons, the nouveau riche and racketeers disguised as businessmen. Mr. Lebed is not so trusted. He has always been something of a loose cannon and his talk about cracking down on shady get-rich-quick schemes and corruption scares the new economic elite.

If Mr. Yeltsin dies or becomes incapacitated, Mr. Chernomyrdin would be an interim leader until new presidential elections are arranged within two months. The danger is that the various Kremlin rivals might be tempted to settle the succession before that by extraconstitutional means and not through an election.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

A coup in Russia's future?; Power struggle: Unless Yeltsin recovers, ailing president may turn into a figurehead.

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