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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Diplomatic Illness?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Speculation in both Moscow and the West that Boris Yeltsin invoked health problems to avoid having to sign a new union treaty with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka on Friday calls attention to a gambit frequently used by leaders throughout history: the diplomatic illness.

But suggestions that Yeltsin faked this particular bout of illness to avoid doing something he had decided he did not want to do also highlights a new aspect of this old concept: the desire on the part of some in both his own country and the West to give the often-sick Russian president the opportunity to reverse course without having to take responsibility for what he has sponsored up to that point.

More than 30 times since becoming president of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin has been ill enough to drop out of sight or cancel meetings with domestic or foreign leaders. In most cases, subsequent reports showed, he was genuinely ill and even had been hospitalized for serious heart or lung problems. That pattern suggests that any claims that his illnesses are diplomatic should be treated with skepticism.

But there have been several occasions during his career when illnesses were clearly linked to political developments, sometimes by him but more often by others, even if he was in each case genuinely sick. The most prominent of these came during Moscow's invasion of Chechnya in 1994-96.

In December 1994, as Russian forces were advancing on Grozny, Yeltsin went to the hospital for a minor operation on his nose and then stayed out of public view for several weeks. And then, repeatedly during the worst months of the fighting in 1995, Yeltsin drops from public view for long periods, reportedly because of heart problems.

Given that Yeltsin suffered a heart attack in June 1996, just before Russian elections and something his aides only confirmed much after the fact, all the health problems he had reportedly suffered in 1995 seem to have been genuine enough and not to have been "diplomatic illnesses" on his part, at least in the usual sense.

But the way in which some Russian and Western analysts and leaders treated these illnesses at the time suggests that they should fall under this rubric, albeit in a special way. Yeltsin's absences during Moscow's campaign against Chechnya allowed him to escape responsibility for what was going on. Indeed, in the eyes of many, Yeltsin's absences meant that he could not possibly be in charge of that increasingly unpopular war.

Most reached that conclusion did so on the basis of the facts as they saw them, but at least some appear to have done so less because of the facts but in order to give Yeltsin the opportunity to back away from his own policies that had led to the war without having to acknowledge any responsibility for what had taken place. And in that sense, Yeltsin's illnesses during the war were "diplomatic" because others made them so.

Last week's events may represent another example of that kind. Yeltsin may have been ill, but official Russian descriptions of his sickness as a viral infection and bronchitis -- if accurate -- suggest that he was not gravely so and that he might have gone ahead with the signing of the new union treaty. His decision not to thus points to a diplomatic illness in the typical sense.

On the one hand, as Yeltsin clearly understands, the West is increasingly upset by Moscow's attacks on Chechnya and by Russia's increasingly anti-Western rhetoric. Signing a treaty with the dictatorial Lukashenka would only exacerbate Western concerns that Moscow is moving away from its commitments on human rights and threatening the stability of the post-Soviet region.

But on the other, the Russian president also clearly recognizes that both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's war against Chechnya and Lukashenka's political ideas are extremely popular among most Russians. Indeed, over the weekend, Anatoly Chubais, one of Russia's leading reformers, attacked Grigoriy Yavlinsky, one of its leading democrats, as being "a traitor" for his opposition to the Putin government's strategy.

By neither signing nor refusing to sign the new union treaty, Yeltsin not only avoided further angering the West. He created a situation in which many in the West will rush to absolve him of any responsibility for this document in the hopes that he will never sign it -- as well as one in which he can sign it sometime in the future and thus win support at home.

In this way and because of the actions of others, Yeltsin's illnesses may be "diplomatic" even when they are in fact genuine.