MOSCOW -- He stays under a shadow's edge, as befits a Kremlin strategist, but presidential aide Anatoly Chubais has become Russia's leading power broker while President Boris N. Yeltsin is sick on the sidelines.
With Yeltsin scheduled for heart surgery after two months of being mostly off the job, and with the Kremlin roiled by internal conflict, Chubais, the Kremlin chief of staff, increasingly is calling the shots in Russia.
"The fact is that Yeltsin is not in charge," said Sergei Baburin, deputy speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
With Yeltsin's capacity to rule in doubt, "the most influential person today is certainly Chubais," said Baburin, a critic of the privatization policies the Western-oriented Chubais has long championed.
One of Chubais' advantages is that he acts in league with Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, a political neophyte who only recently emerged as a Kremlin force. A second advantage is that in a government run largely by presidential fiat, Chubais now signs off on all of Yeltsin's decrees before they can be issued.
Yeltsin dumped Chubais in January after the Western-oriented economist who masterminded Russia's privatization program came under merciless fire from opposing presidential candidates.
He was brought back to the Kremlin this spring to revamp the president's faltering re-election campaign. He now hangs on to the commanding spot in an uneasy troika of power shared by Chubais, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and National Security Secretary Alexander Lebed.
The three are absorbed in a bare-knuckled Kremlin power struggle -- the most public in Russia's history.
There has been no visible threat of a coup. The fight is over who will legally succeed Yeltsin, 65, and Chubais may have gained the upper hand because, for the moment, he is not an active candidate. The principals are Lebed, 46, the blunt retired general, and Chernomyrdin, 58, the former Soviet apparatchik with whom Chubais is allied for now.
The mix will change if Yeltsin dies or becomes too incapacitated to serve, as many Russians expect will happen sooner rather than later. One high-level Western diplomat recently said that Yeltsin's condition is so tenuous that he could be fatally stricken any day.
Should that happen Chernomyrdin would gain new authority as acting president until new elections, which the Russian constitution requires must be held within three months.
Even if Yeltsin's heart surgery produces another in his series of miraculous personal comebacks, the struggle to succeed him will carry on. It just will last longer, until Yeltsin's term expires in four years.
Chubais, 40, reached pre-eminence by getting Yeltsin re-elected this summer. He was the only person bold enough to tell Yeltsin that he was dangerously behind in the race, then convinced him it was possible to win only by sticking with free-market policies rather than returning to the Communist solutions he had started to embrace.
Chubais carried with him the leading private capitalists in Russia, the men who got rich because communism gave way to capitalism under privatization. He also is in good favor with Yeltsin's daughter, a mathematician and 36-year-old mother who suddenly joined the political fray to save her father from a crushing defeat. The group combined the money and brains that produced Yeltsin's come-from-behind victory.
Chubais has installed himself in the Kremlin office next to the president's, and the key lever he controls is the issuance of the "ukaz," or presidential directive. In Russia, presidential prerogative is vastly stronger than either legislative or judicial power, and these directives determine the course of government. Yeltsin signed one last month declaring that Chubais must clear directives before they reach the president. The channel competing interests had used to achieve their ends -- getting Yeltsin to sign the orders they proposed -- was corked.
For now Chubais is aligned with Chernomyrdin in an effort to stunt the impact of Lebed, who gained his powerful position by winning 16 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election in June. He threw his support behind Yeltsin in the runoff in exchange for the promise of a high-impact job.
Chubais and Chernomyrdin tried to scuttle Lebed's image as a plain-talking man of action by handing him the war in Chechnya to resolve. He was tossed this boiling potato at the moment the rebels had gained ground and Russian officers were promising a new bombing offensive in the southern secessionist republic, one that no one in Moscow acknowledged ordering.
To widespread amazement, Lebed not only put a stop to the offensive, but he also sat down with separatist leaders, knocked out a cease-fire agreement in the 21-month-old war, and then secured a draft peace agreement that calls for a final decision on Chechnya to be made in elections five years from now.