Jitters in Moscow Unstable situation: With Yeltsin ill, Russia is again awash in speculation about a successor.

March 14, 1998

IT IS A measure of Russia's instability that every time Boris N. Yeltsin gets sick, speculation soars over the true state of his health. That, in turn, triggers a guessing game about his eventual successor.

Look at the jockeying in Moscow these days. As soon as news began to spread that the 67-year-old president was ill (throat trouble this time, according to the official Kremlin announcement), billionaire banker and manipulator Boris Berezovsky branded Mr. Yeltsin's deputy and economic reform planner Anatoly Chubais a "total failure."

"I say the last year, the year since Chubais joined the government, has been catastrophic," said Mr. Berezovsky, who was fired as the Kremlin's deputy national security chief in November for allegedly mixing his government and personal interests.

Mr. Chubais had a hand in that dismissal and has since repeatedly warned that a handful of "oligarchs" endanger Russia's fledgling democratic processes in hopes of creating "crony capitalism."

Whether Mr. Chubais, 42, would have any chance of succeeding Mr. Yeltsin is debatable. He has been highly controversial during his entire six-year political career in Moscow. Millions of impoverished Russians blame him for the misery that followed a huge 1992 program to privatize state property.

That same program enabled a number of crafty and well-placed people -- including Mr. Berezovsky, an erstwhile friend -- to amass immense fortunes overnight.

Mr. Chubais followed that with a campaign against hyperinflation and a scheme that transferred some of the biggest state oil and metals companies to a handful of banks at bargain prices.

Critics accuse him of hypocrisy and point out that Mr. Chubais has his own unsavory connections to Moscow's robber barons. After all, he was hired by the powerful clique of Moscow bankers to help engineer Mr. Yeltsin's re-election. He is an adept administrator and a savvy political strategist.

Aside from banks and corporations, Mr. Berezovsky controls a powerful media empire. He wants Mr. Chubais removed from the Kremlin's inner circle because the money elite prefers Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a colorless bureaucrat unlikely to rock the boat.

Even if nothing is seriously wrong with Mr. Yeltsin during his current illness, the betting in Moscow is that the time for transition is rapidly approaching.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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