Yeltsin plans to return to work Monday, he tells TV audience Eight weeks after surgery, president looks healthy as he warns backsliders

December 21, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW LTC THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — MOSCOW -- A boisterous, healthy-looking President Boris N. Yeltsin announced on national television yesterday that he would climb back into the saddle Monday -- eight weeks after quintuple-bypass heart surgery.

"The doctors have done all their best and even more. It's now the president's turn," Yeltsin declared in his booming baritone during a six-minute appearance, recorded at his hunting lodge northwest of Moscow.

Speaking in his old authoritative voice, he warned that he would be after people who had been taking it easy while he was away.

"Everyone will have to account for their actions, irrespective of their past merits," he said.

Yeltsin will make some "unexpected" moves once he is back at work full-time, said Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, the president's spokesman.

Political analysts, who before the president's surgery Nov. 5 were predicting fresh presidential elections to replace him, have been speculating that Yeltsin will do something dramatic.

They think he'll want to show he's in charge of a Kremlin that has been rife with intrigue and power struggles during his absence.

'Something dramatic'

"It's very much his style to do something dramatic. Everyone is expecting him to flex his muscle, fire someone, announce something big," said Lev Ponomayov co-chairman of Democratic Russia Movement, the once-powerful centrist political bloc that brought Yeltsin to power.

The daily Sevodnya caused a sensation by reporting that Yeltsin will appoint his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, as an official presidential aide. The Kremlin denied the report, but Dyachenko is already considered a major influence on her father.

Precedents for Yeltsin's fire-breathing comebacks are legendary. In 1987 he brought on what he calls his "civil execution" by daring to stand up at a Communist Central Committee plenum and criticize Soviet leaders for slow reform.

A month later he was dragged from a hospital bed and fired from the Politburo.

But within months he was riding a wave of popularity that would eventually sweep his political enemies out of power and make him the first democratically elected leader in Russia's history.

The Russian president always does best in extreme situations, says Andrei Piontkowski, a Moscow political analyst.

"But in concentrated, day-to-day, routine work like economic recovery, well it's not his field," says Piontkowski.

Unfortunately, that sort of day-to-day responsibility for making government work is what seems most necessary these days.

Despite a troubled economy in which millions of Russian workers go without pay for months, and a still-explosive situation in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, Russia has settled down to the relatively stable nitty-gritty of making a democratic and capitalistic system work.

If it's drama that Yeltsin needs as the emotional fuel to feed his remarkable comebacks, this may not be the time. The Kremlin has already been pushing the image of Yeltsin in full control in his "full-speed" recovery.

The Kremlin announced high-profile meetings with foreign leaders. He is expected to meet German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac in Moscow early next month, chair a meeting of the heads of state of the 12 former Soviet republics on Jan. 17, and have a Washington summit with President Clinton in March.

Long walks, swimming

Yastrzhembsky, Yeltsin's spokesman, said the president spends four hours each morning dealing with mail and official paperwork at a country residence 60 miles from Moscow. Yeltsin has also been taking long walks, swimming, sweating in a sauna, and watching feature movies and political shows on television.

Already Yeltsin has been flexing his muscle. In a controversial, and as yet unexplained directive two weeks ago, he fired the general in charge of the army's ground forces. In a reform move, he asked Defense Minister Igor Rodionov to retire from his military post and made him the nation's first civilian defense chief.

"We are expecting a high level of political energy when the president is back," says Giorgy Satarov, a Yeltsin political aide.

Yeltsin will have to face the constant, simmering problems of the economy as well as Chechnya. Peace efforts in the breakaway republic took a serious blow last week with the slaying of six Red Cross workers by unknown assailants. January will also be a difficult month because Chechnya will mount potentially divisive elections.

Must buckle down

Satarov says the president must also buckle down to more structural problems -- the process of democratic reform that has missed his strong guiding hand in the past year:

"Our president needs to take responsibility [for solving reform problems] because we have no one else who can force the implementation of laws and decrees," he says.

But, says Satarov, Yeltsin seems to have an easier time of "overcoming major crises [such as his heart operation] than overcoming the crises of normal, everyday work life in the Kremlin."

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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