Prague, July 19 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's last-minute rescheduling of his meeting with U.S. Vice President Al Gore this week has stirred editorial comment in Western newspapers about Yeltsin's health and the future of reforms. Here is a sampling.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
In an editorial titled "Get Well Soon," today's Journal says there is concern that should Yeltsin become incapacitated or die, the reforms he has achieved might be in jeopardy. The paper praises Yeltsin's appointment of economic reformer Anatoli Chubais as his new chief of staff, saying that the move "extends broad powers and signals that the administration is moving further away from the hawks that once dominated Mr Yeltsin's circle."
The editorial speculates on what might happen should Yeltsin die before completing his next four years in office. It considers possible election results, as well as potential "grab for power" scenarios. The Journal notes that during 70 years of communism, "the sight of pale Russian leaders sent analysts scrambling for their Politburo organizational charts."
"Today," the Journal concludes, "even with democracy taking root and a process of succession apparently codified, it is telling that the illness of the Russian president makes people nervous."
A Post editorial says that those looking for signs of the direction Yeltsin will take in his second term did not have to wait long. "First came the shameful escalation of his war against the Chechen people, despite his campaign promise to seek a negotiated solution. Then came the auspicious appointment of Anatoli Chubais, a committed reformer and deft bureaucratic operator."
The Post says it has yet to be seen whether Yeltsin's "failing health" or the war in Chechnya will undermine his "push" for economic reform and democratization. It concludes by saying that the most important events in Russia "no longer take place inside, nor are they controlled by, the Kremlin."
The newspaper says Russia's regions are now going "their own way and people are shaping private lives unencumbered by ideology or fear."
Lothar Ruehl writes in the German daily that recently-appointed national security chief Aleksandr Lebed is casting a shadow that stretches across the Kremlin. The paper says that if Yeltsin were to disappear from the political scene because of his health, Chubais' success in carrying out economic reforms would "depend solely upon (Russian Prime Minister Viktor) Chernomyrdin."
The editorial makes historical parallels between Lebed and "the phenomenon of Bonapartism" during the early 19th century. The paper suggests that Lebed might eventually emerge as "the man on the white horse who rides through the gates of the Kremlin and stands in the center of the city of power."
NEW YORK TIMES
Michael Specter says in an analysis today that Yeltsin's "obvious illness" is belied by the "zeal" with which, during the past month, he has "turned the Kremlin into a hive of intrigue and caprice (that is) dense and imponderable...filled with lieutenants at odds with one another." He writes that Yeltsin has "started to craft a new government that seems to be built at least in part on the principle that the nation will prosper as long as none of the president's deputies can trust one another."
Specter says that a government which includes both Chernomyrdin and Lebed "stretches the meaning of creative tension." He concludes that the inner-government struggle between Chernomyrdin and Lebed "is what passes in Russia for a system of checks and balances."
FINANCIAL TIMES OF LONDON
An editorial in the Financial TImes says "The appointment of General Igor Rodionov as Russia's Defence Minister should dispel the illusions of anyone who believed that the re-election of Yeltsin, with General Aleksandr Lebed at his side, marked a straghtforward success for liberal values over the brutish authoritarianism of the Soviet past."
The paper says few figures in Moscow epitomise the Soviet Union's authoritarian past so clearly. It reminds readers of the poison gas and sharpened spades used against unarmed Georgian demonstrators in April 1989 by troops under Rodionov's command. "Since then," the editorial says, "it seems (that) the center of gravity has shifted so dramatically in favour of authoritarianism that a general who symbolises the 'iron fist' can be promoted without much fear of objection from liberals."
The newspaper says the West will watch "with understandable scepticism" as Rodionov attempts to fight corruption in Russia's armed forces. It concludes by saying that "if General Rodionov is serious about wanting a strong, reformed army, as opposed to buying off venal generals, the first thing he must do is end the blood-letting in Chechnya, which is after all, the stated aim of his close ally General Lebed."