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Russia: Yeltsin's Illness Fuels Fresh Talk Of Power Struggles

  • Lindsay Percival-Straunik

Prague, 14 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's admission to hospital with pneumonia last week has prompted speculation that Russia is heading for a new round of in-fighting and power struggles.

The next presidential election is not due until the year 2000, but some political analysts say that date could be brought forward if Yeltsin's absence is prolonged.

Among those already jockeying for position is former national security chief, Aleksandr Lebed. He has already openly declared his presidential ambitions - a move which cost him his job in the Kremlin last October.

Although the West may have its doubts, deeming him something of a loose cannon for his unpredictable and sometimes virulent remarks, Lebed is, according to the polls, Russia's most popular politician. He is seen by some as Russia's next leader.

Despite only a short term in office Lebed was able to produce results by putting an end to the deeply unpopular war in Chechnya. He is also respected for his ability succinctly to put into words the hopes and fears of many Russians.

As for the Communists, most political observers have ruled out any serious challenge from within their ranks. Their leader Gennady Zyuganov, who lost in the run off with Yeltsin last July, has failed to portray himself as a convincing leader-in-waiting.

Although Zyuganov did attempt to strengthen his support by forging a wider alliance with other leftist and nationalist groups his ambitions have been hampered. This is largely due to a limited access to mass media, lack of personal charisma and few financial resources.

One person who could do well in any fresh bid for the presidency is Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. He won a landslide re-election last June and has kept up a high public profile.

His long term ambitions are unknown and analysts are divided. Some say Luzhkov would probably prefer to remain a big fish in a small pond as city mayor where he wields tangible power and influence rather than setting his sights on the top job as head of state.

Also unclear are the intentions of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Constitutionally, the powers of head of state fall to him if Yeltsin is unable to perform his duties.

When he was called to take over during Yeltsin's heart operation in November Chernomyrdin showed no signs of overstepping the mark. Then, as in the past, he showed himself to be a staunch ally of Yeltsin. His dull image makes him unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the charismatic Lebed should early elections be called.

One man unlikely to run for presidency this time round but someone to watch in the future is Anatoly Chubais. As head of Yeltsin's administration he already wields considerable influence. Along with Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, Chubais is credited with organizing Yeltsin's successful re-election campaign.

But he is not popular with the public, who blame him for what many see as the grossly unfair way in which the country's state enterprises were sold off.

Although every Russian citizen received a privatization voucher, to be invested sold or exchanged many people feel cheated. The real beneficiaries of privatization, they say, were members of the ruling elite who got rich quick leaving others behind in poverty.