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Russia: Yeltsin's Illness Affects Politics

Moscow, 21 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Kremlin announced yesterday evening that President Boris Yeltsin had left the Central Clinical Hospital to continue recovering from double pneumonia at his Gorky-9 residence outside Moscow. The announcement appeared designed to suggest that Yeltsin's health was improving.

Opposition legislators in the State Duma today said, however, that they would try to remove the president from office on health grounds during tomorrow's Duma plenary session.

A similar attempt by the communist-dominated assembly failed last week when its legal experts said that the Duma could not remove the sitting president simply because he was ill.

The Russian president has spent 10 of the past 19 months in hospitals, sanitariums and holiday retreats. His prolonged absence has made many Russian and international observers to express doubt in Yeltsin's ability to lead the country.

The Russian Constitution, drafted in 1993 at Yeltsin's own direction, says that a president should step down in case of "persistent inability to exercise his powers for health reasons." But the Constitution fails to specify the exact circumstances under which a president can be declared too ill to stay in office.

Yeltsin was hospitalized with double pneumonia on January 8, only two weeks after he had returned to the Kremlin following his quintuple heart bypass operation two months earlier. This might have been a premature return. Several brief, pre-recorded television appearances showed Yeltsin with glassy eyes and stiff posture; he was hardly mobile.

Last week Yeltsin's chief doctor Sergei Mironov said that the president would be fit to work in the Kremlin and to keep his previously announced travel schedule after a short recuperation period.

But yesterday Yeltsin's press spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said that the president is unlikely to rush back to full-time work and stopped short of saying when Yeltsin would be back in the Kremlin. Yastrzhembsky said, however, that Yeltsin was expected to chair a Moscow summit of CIS heads of state at the end of January and was planning a trip to Netherlands for a meeting with European Union leaders.

Russia's markets seem unaffected by Yeltsin's illness. The daily "Moscow Times" reported today that shares on the Russian Trading System (Stock Exchange) ended at record high yesterday.

But recent Russian opinion polls, widely published by Russian and foreign media, show that few Russians think the president will recuperate enough to be in control of state affairs.

Yeltsin's political foes are again arguing that Yeltsin is incapable of running the government, leaving control to the head of his administration, Anatoly Chubais. They say Chubais has taken advantage of his power to protect the interests of a small group of bankers and businessmen who funded Yeltsin's electoral campaign.

Sergei Markov, an analyst in the Moscow-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL today it is unlikely that Yeltsin's foes in the Duma would either persuade Yeltsin to step down or force him out of office.

Many politicians are concerned that an early presidential election would favor former Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed. Lebed is currently shown in opinion polls as the most popular Russian politician, but is seen as having a penchant toward authoritarian methods. He did not make many friends among the legislators when he single-handedly brokered the Chechen peace deal.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has so far denied any interest in running for presidency. But last week he went on a highly publicized trip to the Ukrainian city of Sebastopol, home to the disputed Black Sea Fleet, and then asserted that Sebastopol is and should remain a Russian city. The assertion certainly went well with the nationalists and propelled Luzhkov's name on the front page of papers nationwide. Ukraine's demand the Kremlin issue an apology for Luzhkov's statement have been ignored in Moscow.

Markov says that these political developments simply show that "business is going on as usual in Russia and everybody is playing his role," while the president is also ill "as usual." He also says that very few Russian politicians seem to be concerned that Yeltsin's prolonged illness may eventually adversely affect Russia's economic and political stability.