Contradiction, intrigue swirl around Yeltsin The 'new openness' about his health leads to conflicting reports

September 24, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The "new openness" proclaimed by President Boris N. Yeltsin upon his unprecedented announcement of planned heart surgery this month has unleashed a gabfest of often contradictory information, causing as much intrigue as the old Soviet Kremlin secrecy once did.

In the past four days, Yeltsin's heart surgeon, his daughter, the chief Kremlin physician and a former press secretary all offered their own shading of the president's condition.

Yesterday, the Communist speaker of the Russian State Duma, or lower house of parliament, said Yeltsin should resign. At the same time, the crowd of people observing Yeltsin and commenting on his condition grew by one with the arrival of renowned American heart specialist Dr. Michael DeBakey.

"I am always optimistic," DeBakey told reporters. "I can tell you nothing about his health until I get the information."

What is fairly certain is that the 65-year-old Yeltsin has serious heart trouble combined with other health problems that may cause his bypass operation to be postponed or even canceled.

A council of Russian surgeons and foreign medical consultants, including DeBakey, is expected to finish tests on Yeltsin tomorrow and announce their recommended treatment.

Yeltsin has been in the hospital 11 days for pre-surgery tests that the Kremlin initially said would take two days. The Kremlin press service maintains that nothing is wrong.

But the talking heads -- official and unofficial -- suggest otherwise.

Chief Kremlin physician Sergei Mironov began to paint a more serious picture of the president's health in a Friday news conference in which he said the president had other medical problems that might complicate his heart operation. He did not specify what they might be.

But that night, Dr. Renat Akchurin, Yeltsin's chief heart surgeon, dropped a bombshell of detail about just what the complications might include. He told ABC News' "Nightline" that the president's aides had covered up a Yeltsin heart attack just before the presidential run-off elections in July.

In other interviews throughout the weekend, Akchurin backpedaled slightly from that statement, saying it was something less severe than what a "heart attack" means to Americans. But the essence of what he was saying is that Yeltsin's condition might be so unstable that the president might have to postpone or cancel surgery altogether.

Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, meanwhile told Russian Television on Sunday that her father would have the bypass surgery. She said the family nearly had to tie him to the hospital bed so that his medical team could get him prepared for surgery.

"He feels well, or at least as normal as one can feel before a surgery," she said. "Naturally, he has some anxiety."

And adding to the intrigue around the "complications" that Yeltsin suffers was the laundry list of problems offered Saturday by Pavel Voshchanov, press secretary to the president from July 1991 to February 1992.

Voshchanov said in an interview with Associated Press Television that liver and kidney problems, exacerbated by Yeltsin's drinking, caused scheduling problems during his tenure.

Kremlin doctor Mironov has denied that kidney and liver problems are among the president's health complications.

Voshchanov went on to say that the president has back problems, a "problem with blood vessels in the brain," and "he has inflammation of the middle ear and can barely hear out of that ear."

Spin control

Political analyst Sergei Markov said yesterday that all the information spewing forth is "not a new openness, but very good zTC public relations."

While the tales may be degrees apart, they're still headed in the same direction, he said, suggesting that this is all a nascent effort at spin control by Yeltsin chief of staff Anatoly Chubais.

"They don't want to say what reality is," suggested Markov. "They want to create a good image, that the situation is under control that, of course, there are problems important for Russia and the world but that these problems are under control, that the situation is stable.

"It's the legitimization of the long-term disappearance of Yeltsin. They want to show the fact that Yeltsin disappeared before and may in the future and that it's natural."

One Western diplomat who did not see the same degree of orchestration that Markov was seeing said: "They are trying to be more forthcoming. We at least have an idea of what's really wrong. Ten years ago they'd say he has the flu, we wouldn't see him for eight months and then the funeral would be announced."

Still, the latest openness did not occur until after Yeltsin was safely re-elected in July.

"Yes, it was probably dishonest" for Yeltsin not to inform the public of his heart problem before the runoff, said Alexei Yablonski, a 20-year-old college student who voted for Yeltsin. "But it's just one more lie among many [from Yeltsin], and I would have voted for him anyway.

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