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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Coping With Presidential Disability

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The prospect that Russian President Boris Yeltsin may face an extended convalescence following heart surgery on Tuesday has reopened the question of how his government will cope during that period.

By now, everyone in Russia and abroad is familiar with the provisions of the Russian constitution which anticipate the temporary transfer of power by the president to his prime minister.

But as other countries have discovered in such circumstances, such general provisions fail to cover all the complexities involved. And these are likely to be multiplied by the inevitable confusion within the Russian government in such circumstances.

Moreover, these difficulties are attracting ever more attention from people in Russia and abroad because of the enormous power -- over nuclear weapons and other matters -- that is concentrated in the hands of the Russian constitution.

Among the most obvious problems -- and again these are issues that the United States and other countries have wrestled with as well -- are the following:

First, what issues can an acting president in fact decide on, and what issues will he inevitably put off until the elected president returns to full powers?

Second, what happens if the president wants to resume his powers but those who have been acting refuse to yield them either because they have doubts about the ability of the president to act or because they want power for themselves?

And third, how can an acting president avoid the devolution of decision-making downward, a process that will lead to more disorder in the country than if a single policy were decided upon and imposed?

But stating the problems so starkly in fact understates the difficulties involved.

On the one hand, there are the complex personal interrelationships that exist among a president and his associates, relationships that are likely to be disturbed either by a president's incapacity or by the prospect that he will return to power.

Some of a president's aides may see themselves as benefiting from a succession while others know that they will lose power if the elected president is displaced one way or another.

And on the other hand, there are the very real difficulties in assessing the ability of a recovering chief executive at any particular time. Shortly after surgery, Yeltsin may be able to focus on some issues, but it is going to be some time before he will have the energy to focus on a broad range.

Again, some of his subordinates will see a gain in defining the situation one way, and others will see a gain from defining it in another. And in both cases, they may find themselves at odds with the president himself.

And looming over these considerations are the prospect -- real or imagined -- of political challenges either at home or abroad.

The Russian president may be able to cope quickly in a situation where there are few such challenges, but he may find it difficult to cope should crises emerge or threaten to emerge.

Some Russian politicians may thus see it in their interests to provoke a crisis in order to take advantage of Yeltsin's incapacity. And many Russian officials around Yeltsin may fear that prospect or seek to take advantage of it to press their case.

And beyond that, many in the Yeltsin entourage suspect that some outsiders -- either the West or some other force -- may somehow seek to take advantage of the president's illness. Even if there is no such threat, the suggestion that one exists may also cast a shadow on the president's recovery.

In short, Russians seem certain to face problems far beyond those anticipated in their constitution, and in that too, they are thus experiencing yet another of the problems arising from Russian history itself and from Russia's ongoing transformation toward a more open society.