A nuclear power on autopilot Yeltsin illness: As president's absences become frequent, Russia tackles money woes without a plan.

October 29, 1998

THE PATTERN established under Soviet rule continues: Russia is once again on autopilot, led by a doddering president. Surrogates insist everything is normal and, indeed, day-to-day governing continues. But President Boris Yeltsin has become a figurehead as his faltering health has forced frequent absences from public life.

Could this continue until the summer of 2000, when Mr. Yeltsin's term ends? Judging from the marked deterioration of Mr. Yeltsin's condition, the answer to that question is a source of concern. The brief glimpses of edited videotape show a man who is frail, out of touch and hardly capable of leading a nuclear power.

So far, the Kremlin has refused to disclose what ails the president. This is in keeping with an age-old Russian tradition maintaining that the ruler's health is not a public concern. The Kremlin speaks only of "unstable blood pressure and undue fatigue" as a result of an "asthenic condition," or overall weakness.

In the last decade of Soviet rule, Kremlin staffers became experts in covering up for aged, ailing leaders from Leonid I. Brezhnev to Konstantin U. Chernenko. Though some of the mystery surrounding the Russian ruler is gone, secrecy shrouds many decisions, making it easier for the staff to insist everything is in order.

Mr. Yeltsin's visible exhaustion has renewed speculation about his successor. Two leading contenders are Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and retired Gen. Alexander Lebed. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov also must be considered. He would take over the president's office temporarily should Mr. Yeltsin become incapable of handling his duties.

During the summer's governmental crisis, Mr. Primakov, a diplomat and spymaster, emerged as a compromise candidate for prime minister. He says he is not interested in becoming president, and his first six weeks as prime minister have been lackluster. All bets, however, would be off if something were to happen to Mr. Yeltsin.

Pub date 10/29/98

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