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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin's Bypass Tests Political Structures

President Boris Yeltsin's heart operation, now likely to take place next week, is shaping up not only as a test of his own physical powers but of the strength of Russia's constitutional order.

Can Russia's fledgling political institutions, most less than three years old, take the strain when the president, the apex of the new constitutional system, disappears under the surgeon's knife and undergoes a lengthy convalescence?

There are historical precedents aplenty for incapacitated Kremlin leaders who ruled Russia in name only while real power was exercised by others.

But the rules of the game have changed since the days of the Soviet Union, when political stability was unaffected by the ailments of a series of sick leaders. Now the stakes are higher.

Leonid Brezhnev, Communist Party leader from 1964 to 1982, presided over a period of calm and predictability in the Soviet Union. But from the mid-1970s he was medically unfit to govern, addicted to drugs and only able to concentrate for short spells.

His successor Yury Andropov spent most of his brief term in power in hospital with kidney failure. When he died in 1984 his replacement was another invalid, the wheezing emphysema-sufferer Konstantin Chernenko.

Paradoxically it was the vigorous and healthy Mikhail Gorbachev, who took over in 1985, who destabilized the political system by trying to push through democratic reforms. Within a little over five years, it had collapsed.

Some historians, looking to medieval Muscovy, say Russia was always at its most stable when the nominal leader was a weak or incapacitated figurehead -- Brezhnev being the best example.

The theory says power in Russia has been wielded by bureaucrats reporting to a Soviet-style "collective leadership."

However the factors that kept the Kremlin power system running smoothly in Soviet times are less effective today.

Much has changed in Russia's political system since the collapse of communism, at the hands of Yeltsin himself. His 1993 made-to-measure constitution turned the head of state into the key figure in the political system.

Instead of a centralized system with all power flowing down from the politburo, Russia now has a basic law which lays down respective powers of the presidency, the two chambers of parliament, the government and the courts.

But the rules of the game are vague, and without a healthy president in charge, the balance is easily upset, and political infighting could get out of hand.

When Brezhnev, Andropov or Chernenko were in the hospital, the old system functioned like clockwork; politburo meetings went normally and the party's second secretary took the chair.

But until Yeltsin hands over all his powers temporarily to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, nobody can formally deputize for him in this way or sign decrees in his name.

This has led to accusations that Yeltsin's chief of staff Anatoly Chubais is in effect operating as a regent, using the president's authority to take decisions in his absence.

Another pillar of the old Kremlin system, the all-pervading secrecy and censorship which surrounded the health of Soviet leaders, no longer works.

After weeks of obfuscation and lies, the truth about Yeltsin's heart condition was laid bare when he announced his impending operation Sept. 5.

Any temptation to massage the truth about his condition is complicated by the fact that foreign medical experts, including U.S. cardiac surgery pioneer Michael DeBakey, are part of the team advising on his treatment.

A factor which Soviet leaders could ignore but which present Russian leaders must heed is the sensitivity of domestic financial markets to Yeltsin's health.

Already there are signs of a recognition in the Kremlin that the political system needs underpinning to prevent turf battles getting out of control.

Yeltsin has authorized the creation of a four-strong "Consultative Council" to include Chernomyrdin, Chubais and the heads of the two chambers of parliament, including Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, a Communist.

This extra-constitutional body, clearly designed to defuse Communist demands for a probe into Yeltsin's fitness to govern, now looks as though it may not get off the ground at all.

Seleznyov said Wednesday he would not take his seat on the council while Chubais stood in for the president.