Yeltsin Puts Reformer In Top Staff PositionBy David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 16 1996; Page A10
President Boris Yeltsin announced the first major new appointment of his second term today, naming economic reformer Anatoly Chubais to manage his administration. But the boost for reform advocates was overshadowed by news that Yeltsin had abruptly postponed a planned Kremlin meeting with Vice President Gore, reigniting questions about his health.
Chubais, the 41-year-old economist who played a key role in Yeltsin's reelection campaign, is a controversial figure. A symbol of the free-market reforms begun in Yeltsin's first term, he is respected by democratic reformers but widely despised among those who have suffered in the market economy. Yeltsin has given Chubais a powerful position -- effectively presidential chief of staff -- from which he will wield broad influence, Russian officials said.
But the sudden decision to postpone a meeting with Gore triggered a fresh surge of questions about Yeltsin's health. U.S. officials said the meeting had been carefully planned for some time, and the Russians had given no signals that they might call it off. The officials said they did not think Yeltsin's disappearance was intended as a deliberate snub of Gore, who, on his arrival in Moscow, had urged Yeltsin to cease hostilities in Chechnya and honor a truce there.
Yeltsin has been eccentric and once failed to get off a plane in Ireland to greet the Irish prime minister, but today's postponement came with unusual abruptness. Gore learned of it less than an hour before the meeting. Reporters had already assembled at the Kremlin for a picture-taking session.
At first, the Kremlin said the meeting was canceled because Yeltsin decided to take a two-week vacation. Later, it was announced that Yeltsin would meet Gore on Tuesday, probably at Barvikha, the government resort outside Moscow where Yeltsin rests.
Yeltsin has a history of heart trouble and disappearances from public view, the latest only two weeks ago when he slipped out of sight just before the July 3 runoff election. Yeltsin was said by aides then to be suffering from a cold and a sore throat, but several Russian political sources have said in recent interviews they believe he suffered a breakdown, perhaps from exhaustion and depression.
The Kremlin has repeatedly put out false information about his health and hidden his true condition with a wall of secrecy. Sergei Medvedev, Yeltsin's spokesman, told reporters today: "The president is tired, very tired. And he just needs a good rest. He has not gotten sick."
But Medvedev added that Yeltsin, 65, may have a medical examination while at Barvikha, which has a clinic. Medvedev also said, according to the Interfax news agency, that if necessary Yeltsin will undergo unspecified medical procedures. He is believed to have a common heart condition that restricts the flow of blood to the heart muscle. He was hospitalized for treatment twice last year.
Medvedev announced that Yeltsin will not take his annual vacation at the Black Sea resort of Sochi this year, but will remain near Moscow at Barvikha to plan his second term.
Gore, who brushed off questions about Yeltsin's health before leaving Washington, will be the first Western leader to see Yeltsin since his reelection nearly two weeks ago. While Yeltsin has not appeared in public recently, he has been seen in videotapes of meetings with campaign aides and government officials.
Asked today about the postponement, Gore replied that he had only been told about it this morning. Gore is in Moscow for a meeting of the bilateral U.S.-Russian commission he chairs with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, which opened talks on economic and other topics.
U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering told the Reuter news agency: "I've been in Russia for a long time. I've learned to expect that things change here. I've also learned to expect that President Yeltsin has been very careful about his rest and his need for rest from time to time. I wouldn't read anything unusual in this."
In Washington, President Clinton said in an MSNBC-News interview that journalists should "not read too much into" Yeltsin's cancellation of the meeting and suggested that the Russian leader's tough reelection campaign may have left him exhausted.
Chubais has been in and out of Yeltsin's government over the last five years. He was head of the ambitious privatization effort, which transferred a massive amount of state property to private hands. Later he served as deputy prime minister for the economy. He was ousted last January in an anti-reform sweep when Yeltsin was preparing to run for reelection but became a strategist for the president's campaign in March.
In announcing the Chubais appointment, Yeltsin said he was replacing his current chief of staff, Nikolai Yegorov, an old-line bureaucrat, who was put in charge of preparing for Yeltsin's Aug. 9 inauguration ceremony. Yegorov was also named administrator of the southern Russian territory of Krasnodar, a position he held before he came to Moscow in 1993.
Chubais will inherit control of Yeltsin's schedule, his staff and an executive apparatus of thousands of workers. Chubais said his new role will be to strengthen "state-building in the broadest sense of the word," especially in Russia's numerous and disparate regions. Later this year, 35 regional governors, most of whom were appointed by Yeltsin, will run for election. The elections are potentially important for Yeltsin because the governors make up the upper chamber of parliament, where Yeltsin needs cooperation for his second-term program.