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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Toward A Healthy Society

Washington, 6 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's announcement on Thursday that he will undergo treatment for a heart problem later this month and that he favors more openness about his health is reassuring and troubling.

It will certainly reassure many in Russia and elsewhere that Yeltsin's statement lays to rest much of the often wild speculation that has been circulating about him in recent weeks. And his suggestion that he and his aides will be more forthcoming in the future is likely to please everyone as well.

But Yeltsin's latest remarks will also trouble the same people for the three all too obvious reasons:

Even as he proclaimed a new openness, Yeltsin was far from totally forthcoming. As a result, instead of ending all the rumors about his health, he may in fact have caused still more, at least among the most skeptical.

Yeltsin and his aides created the problem that he says they will now solve. Both he and they have been assuring everyone until as recently as the day before his statement that the Russian president was fine and only needed to rest after his campaign for reelection.

The timing of Yeltsin's announcement -- precisely at a time when the Russian president's verdict on the agreement his national security chief Aleksandr Lebed reached on Chechnya -- could lead many to conclude that Yeltsin now may be exploiting his illness for many of the same reasons that he chose to conceal his condition in the past.

But beyond these immediate causes for concern are several more fundamental problems that the question of Yeltsin's health and the ways in which the Russian authorities talk about it inevitably raise.

Yeltsin's latest effort to portray himself as the champion of openness only underscores just how much control the Russian government still exercises over the Russian media on questions that touch central political issues. If Russia had a genuinely free press, neither Yeltsin's past denials nor his latest acknowledgment would have passed without serious challenge.

Moreover, the obsession with Yeltsin's health -- physical and otherwise -- highlights the extent to which the future of Russia depends on his personality rather than on any set of political institutions. That in turn indicates just how far Russia has yet to go to institutionalize even the achievements the Russian people and their government have made in the past five years.

And finally, Yeltsin's effort to play on the theme of the "good tsar with bad advisers" -- his implication that he wants to be more open than those around him -- points to another important continuity in Russian political culture, but one that Russia will have to overcome if it is to make the transition to democracy.

By suggesting that he alone enjoys this special relationship with the population, Yeltsin intentionally or not undermines the authority of all other political institutions. That may strengthen his own hand, but it does nothing for the strengthening of the system he has suggested he wants to put in place. Rather it strengthens the still strong authoritarian elements in the Russian political system.

But Yeltsin's latest acknowledgment does represent an important if still small step toward a more open and healthy society in Russia.