Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Sick? It's Deja Vu All Over Again

President Boris Yeltsin's hospitalization with pneumonia has yet again raised questions about his fitness to rule and concerns about the country's political stability, dashing hopes that such uncertainties had at last been resolved.


Yeltsin's quintuple heart bypass surgery last November was supposed to neutralize "the health issue" once and for all, and until recently everything seemed to be going according to plan.


On his return to the Kremlin on Dec. 23, the president, who has spent about half of the last 19 months sidelined by health problems, energetically declared himself "ready for battle."


In his first two weeks at work, he chaired the temporary emergency commission on tax evasion, slapped state controls over Russia's alcohol trade, received German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and vowed to fire incompetent bureaucrats and jail dishonest ones.


In the first days of 1997, Russia's stock axYet, as Kiselyov puts it, "the eyes do not lie." Last Saturday, during his meeting with Kohl, the Russian head of state was obviously unwell -- pale, sluggish, clinging to the German chancellor's arm for support.


The footage produced a strong sense of d?j? vu.


Suddenly, the incessant speculation about the president's health has begun again. How sick is he? Yeltsin's doctors insist the pneumonia is not related to his bypass surgery and that it is not serious. But nobody is listening.


"The fact that the president is ill somewhat reinforces the rumors that his operation did not turn out as successfully as desired," said Yury Korgunyuk of the Center for Applied Political Studies. "The president looks far less healthy then he is described in the press conferences of [presidential spokesman Sergei] Yastrzhembsky."


This latest illness also appears to be igniting the kind of political jockeying that took place during the period Yeltsin's hospitalization last year, which extended from his re-election in July to his return to Kremlin in December after heart surgery. Alexander Lebed, whom Yeltsin ousted as national security tsar last October, was telling Ekho Moskvy radio within hours of Yeltsin's hospitalization that the president should resign.


On Thursday he called Russia "rudderless," said the question of Yeltsin leaving office for health reasons was "on the agenda," and again accused presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais of establishing "rule by a regent."


The Communists, whose presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov placed second in July's elections, were also quick to repeat their belief that Yeltsin is too sick to govern. Only now, such claims are being taken more seriously.


Yeltsin's hospitalization "has given some credence to the persistent claims of Mr. Lebed and other opponents of the president that they have exclusive information about his real state of health," said Andrei Piontkowsky of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies. "Up until now, we could discard these claims as wishful thinking."


In the short term, it's business as usual. Should Yeltsin's hospitalization extend to weeks or longer, the tandem of Chubais and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will continue to rule the country, as they have done for most of the last six months.


"The same system for running the country which was in operation during his heart illness will continue to operate," said Korgunyuk.


But Izvestia's Kiselyov paints a gloomy picture of the effect of Yeltsin's latest health problems, replete with opposition attempts to impeach the ailing president, endless partisan campaigning by various pretenders to the throne, further postponement of foreign investment and governmental paralysis on key economic issues.


"Regardless of the real degree of seriousness of Yeltsin's condition, it has already destabilized the political situation in the country," said Piontkowsky. "I'm afraid that it's returning the country to the situation of last September-October, when the main would-be presidential candidates were maneuvering for position. ... This is not a good situation for the day-to-day running of the country."


Piontkowsky and other observers said that Lebed, who remains Russia's most popular politician, is best positioned to take advantage of the current situation.


"It is easy for him to use all the frustrations and irritation with the party of power," he said.


Piontkowsky said there are already indications that Lebed is teaming up with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who would be his choice for prime minister if early elections were called.


A Lebed-Luzhkov team, which, he said, is already receiving financial support from businesses connected with former first deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets, would be "an invincible electoral ticket."