Yeltsin's Illness Stirs Succession PretensionsBy David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 24 1996; Page A01
President Boris Yeltsin's heart ailment, which his doctors revealed this weekend is more serious than previously acknowledged, has fueled a fresh and intense struggle for primacy among politicians who would like to succeed him.
Although Yeltsin may survive planned cardiac surgery and return to his duties as the vigorous leader who danced and rallied his way through this year's presidential campaign, his rivals have begun behaving as if his days in power are numbered. They seem to be preparing for a rerun of the leadership battle that was seemingly settled only 2 1/2 months ago, when Yeltsin won a second term as president by handily defeating Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in a runoff.
The Russian constitution provides for a new election within three months if a president suffers a "sustained inability due to health to discharge his powers." The timing is significant, because Yeltsin's surgeon, Renat Akchurin, has suggested that the operation may have to be delayed for perhaps two more months because of the general fragility of the president's health -- adding to a feeling of uncertainty about Yeltsin's recuperative capabilities and the constitutional consequences.
Communist leader Zyuganov focused on Yeltsin's health today during a visit to Strasbourg, France, where he called on Yeltsin to step aside and charged that the president's reelection was unfair because the Kremlin had deceived voters about his medical condition.
Akchurin confirmed to reporters in recent days that Yeltsin suffered a third episode of cardiac distress in the days leading up to the July 3 presidential runoff vote against Zyuganov. Yeltsin was hospitalized twice last year, and physicians said at the time that he suffers from a narrowing of the vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle.
In a television interview Sunday, Akchurin used the words "heart attack" to describe the president's pre-runoff cardiac event; he suggested, however, that it was not one that caused serious damage to the heart muscle.
Michael DeBakey, a pioneering Texas heart surgeon with whom Akchurin once studied, arrived here today for consultations on Yeltsin's case, which are to begin Wednesday. He told reporters he could offer no immediate comment on the Russian leader's health or prospects.
When Yeltsin disappeared from public view in late June -- after placing first in the initial round of presidential voting -- his aides said he was suffering from a cold and had lost his voice. Fearful of the effect the truth about Yeltsin's health might have on the July 3 runoff, they deliberately misled voters. For example, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was asked on July 1 if Yeltsin had suffered a new heart attack, and he replied: "I noticed no sign of any attack."
Zyuganov declared to the Reuter news service today that hiding Yeltsin's condition just days before the vote "amounts to falsification; the election was not fair." Asked if he wants Yeltsin to resign, Zyuganov said, "Yes."
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Communist Party official Gennady Seleznov, suggested that Yeltsin should voluntarily relinquish his office if he cannot have the heart operation and is forced to reduce his workload -- as his physicians have warned he would have to do. "He should ask himself to leave his post," Seleznov told reporters. "Russia doesn't have the kind of situation that allows him to reduce his work intensity."
Yeltsin acknowledged as much recently in written answers to questions from the news magazine Itogi, saying doctors had told him that without the heart operation he would have to change his pace, working just a few hours a day. "I have no use" for that option, he said. Russian voters "elected me so that I should work."
Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin's chief of administration, said recently that Yeltsin's workload now consists of going over paperwork his aides send him. He receives a packet every day, Chubais said, and it is returned the next day; he apparently takes no part in official meetings or other administrative activities. Yeltsin checked into the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow 10 days ago for what aides said initially would be a weekend of medical tests prior to his surgery; his stay has since been prolonged three times.
Yegor Gaidar, a reform economist who has served as acting prime minister under Yeltsin, said today that Yeltsin's illness "has largely dimmed the success of his victory in the presidential election" and "adds an unpleasant element of uncertainty to the current political and economic situation."
Yeltsin's potential successors have been cautiously strutting about the political stage. Alexander Lebed, the national security chief, who was appointed to that post after finishing third in the first round of the presidential election, has made repeated high-profile trips to Chechnya to buttress the recent peace settlement he negotiated with local separatist forces; he also has visited Belarus in the midst of a growing political crisis there.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a rising national political figure, was the subject of a day-long celebration here to mark his 60th birthday. Zyuganov has accused such men and others of plotting campaigns for ascendancy but says he himself is simply tending to his "everyday political work."
On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky called on the post-Yeltsin presidential hopefuls to behave like "people with a conscience," saying, "It's simply necessary to stop this noise." Chubais, too, felt compelled to issue a warning to the rival aspirants, telling an audience over the weekend: "Those politicians who believe that it is time to take up starting positions in a presidential campaign will very soon realize that they have jumped the gun."
In Washington, meanwhile, President Clinton told reporters during a White House bill-signing ceremony that he is confident U.S. relations with Russia will "proceed on a normal course" despite Yeltsin's health problems.
Clinton said the Russian government had "come a long way in developing constitutional mechanisms of authority" and that the United States maintains "regular contact" with other top Kremlin officials -- including Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, to whom Yeltsin has said he would cede his powers temporarily if he is incapacitated by surgery.
"I feel comfortable right now that our relationship will proceed on a normal course," Clinton said.