Russian skepticism grows over state of Yeltsin's health Weak and exhausted, he cancels Austria trip

October 27, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Skeptical Russians began to wonder if they were hearing the whole truth yesterday after President Boris N. Yeltsin abruptly canceled a trip to Austria on the eve of his departure because his doctors insisted he was too weak and exhausted to travel.

And speculation quickly arose about a possible conflict between the real state of Yeltsin's health and his desire to present himself as strong and able enough to finish the last two years of his term, despite more and more calls for his resignation.

"The diagnosis must be much more serious than officially presented," Aleksandr Pumpyansky, editor in chief of the political journal Novoye Vremya, said in an interview. "And the situation will be repeated. A struggle is going on between his character and his illness. Now the illness prevails."

The semi-official Itar-Tass news agency quoted Dmitri Yakushkin, Yeltsin's spokesman, as saying the president was generally weak, had high blood pressure and was exhausted. The independent Interfax agency made the diagnosis sound a little worse, referring to physical and emotional weakness.

In a television interview last night, Oleg Sysuyev, Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff, seemed more ominous than reassuring. He said it wasn't really necessary for the president to involve himself in the day-to-day work of the government.

Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov and his Cabinet represent a broad consensus, he said, allowing the government and the legislature to assume more decision-making powers. Primakov will replace Yeltsin at a summit of the European Union in Vienna today.

"The president is not that sick as to be considered incapacitated," Sysuyev said, leaving the impression Yeltsin could become a somewhat remote figurehead when he added that the president would remain the guarantor of the Constitution and of human rights.

He said that Yeltsin, who is 67, would take a two-week vacation, probably beginning tomorrow, and that his staff was already drawing up a schedule of work for his return.

Yakushkin said the president's condition was brought on by bronchitis and overwork. Yeltsin, however, has rarely been seen at his desk in recent weeks, though his staff has insisted he has been at a country home "working on documents."

Two weeks ago he cut short a trip to Central Asia after his doctors reported he had bronchitis. Television film of his visit made him look disoriented. At one point, he nearly toppled over while standing next to the president of Uzbekistan. He appeared unable to read a dinnertable toast, and finally said something about the shops he had seen -- though he had not visited any.

"He has been ill for a very long time," Mikhail V. Vinogradov, a Moscow doctor, said yesterday. "I think it is very serious."

After watching Yeltsin's Central Asia visit on television, Vinogradov publicly suggested the president submit to a thorough medical examination, which would be reported to the public. "Maybe he'll visit the Kremlin," he said yesterday, "but I cannot imagine that he can really work anymore."

Opposition politicians in the state Duma -- the legislature -- who had been demanding his resignation have been joined by national leaders such as Alexander Lebed, the former Army general who now is governor of Krasnoyarsk. Even Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and a long and loyal supporter, has begun to suggest that perhaps the president should consider leaving office early.

Hearing these reports, and speculation that he had more of the heart problems that led to quintuple bypass surgery in 1996 or even that he was developing Alzheimer's disease, apparently put Yeltsin into a fighting mood.

"Yeltsin wants to give the whole world the impression that he is healthy," Pumpyansky, the editor, said. "That's why he announces he is going on an official visit."

Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, who is president of a political think tank called the Polity Foundation, said Yeltsin's family and doctors had been arguing against the trip for the last two weeks, while the president tried to ignore reality.

"I don't think any good could have come of the trip," Nikonov said. "Yeltsin is seriously ill, and he is in no condition to accomplish anything."

But he very much opposes the president's resignation.

"I think the worst thing we could have now is a presidential election," he said. "Everyone would stop work and start campaigning. Yeltsin didn't pay attention to economic policies anyway."

Primakov is expected to discuss Russia's financial crisis at the Vienna meeting, and yesterday he was reportedly finishing a plan to deal with the nation's economic collapse. But Russians have been waiting for the plan for about six weeks now.

"There won't be a clear plan," Nikonov predicted. "They represent many very different viewpoints."

He said the crisis would eventually end -- because by definition all crises do -- but not because of any government action.

"Fortunately the government was doing nothing so it avoided mistakes," he said. In the vacuum, he said, market forces would take hold and begin to restore Russia to some semblance of financial functioning, despite the government.

And it's not yet time to dismiss Boris N. Yeltsin, said Iskandar Khisamov, political observer for Expert magazine. Though this illness, coming after so many others, no doubt will encourage aspiring presidential candidates, they should not forget that Yeltsin has often drawn strength from adversity and imminent defeat.

"It's too early," Khisamov said. "He will fight for power to the last moment and may even succeed in ruining his rivals' hasty plans."

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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