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Russia: Yeltsin Hospitalized Again

Moscow, 19 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Just one word, "Again," reads the headline of a front-page article in today's edition of the daily "Vremya-MN," commenting on the latest hospitalization of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The headline summarizes the uncertainty in the Russian capital amidst growing concern over the economy and widespread belief that Yeltsin's poor health may lead to early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Yeltsin was hospitalized (Jan.17) at Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital. His doctors decided yesterday to use drugs rather than surgery to treat him for a bleeding stomach ulcer that was the cause of the hospitalization and that has put him under renewed pressure to step aside.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Yakushkin said that doctors have called Yeltsin's condition "satisfactory."

According to Yakushkin, doctors believe his condition can be treated within two to three weeks.

Some may argue that Yeltsin's new absence from the Kremlin may change little for Russia's battered economy. But others in Moscow express concern that the Kremlin's reassuring words on the state of the president's health may, as in the past, hide a more serious condition that could force the president to step down.

The leader of the pro-reform "Yabloko" faction, Grigory Yavlinsky, told the Interfax news agency that he regrets the fact that so far no official has given clear and full information on the real state of Yeltsin's health. Yavlinsky said Yeltsin should himself address the nation and clarify the situation.

Most politicians believe that an early election would distract the country from tackling its pressing economic problems, add even more burden to depleted state finances and further discourage wary foreign investors.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said today that Yeltsin's illness would not have a crucial influence on the state of the country. At the same time, however, Zyuganov noted that Yeltsin "has not worked for seven consecutive days" since his re-election in 1996.

Zyuganov told RFE/RL that "Yeltsin can fulfill his duties, but he cannot work. The question is clear. And the problem is that no one piece of legislation can become effective without his signature."

According to Zyuganov, the State Duma and the Federation Council should start considering how to transfer presidential powers to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and how to organize a new presidential election.

The end of Yeltsin's term is scheduled for June 2000. The president and his aides have repeatedly said he intends to stay in power until then.

Since Yeltsin appointed him in September, Primakov has increasingly been in day-to-day charge of affairs. Yeltsin, however, retains his constitutionally granted sweeping presidential powers.

Primakov's spokeswoman, Tatyana Aristarkhova, said the Prime Minister is in regular contact with Yeltsin and would not alter his schedule for the month following the ailment.

Under Russia's constitution, the president ceases exercising his duties early only if he resigns, shows a lasting inability to perform them due to ill health, or if he is impeached. Under any of these circumstances, the Prime Minister would take charge for three months and the Federation Council would call an early election on the last Sunday before the end of a three months period.

But the constitution does not specify any precise reason why the president should resign and does not spell out clear procedures to determine whether he can or cannot continue to perform his duties for health reasons. This is exactly the point that many legislators are debating at the moment.

A prominent communist legislator, Anatoly Lukyanov, told RFE/RL that it is still too early to talk about a transfer of powers to Primakov. He said, "Only the president's inability to perform his duties would give grounds to this and at the moment [the Duma] does not have the information" needed to make that determination.

Yelena Mysulina, a member of the "Yabloko" faction, lamented that the Duma had not been able to approve a legal mechanism to determine whether the president can perform his duties.

According to other legislators, Yeltsin's hospitalization will give the Kremlin time to decide which possible presidential candidates would most likely continue Yeltsin's course. This was the point of view that ultra-nationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky voiced in an interview to NTV television.

The two leading figures most political analysts name as possible presidential candidates are Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Just one day before Yeltsin's hospitalization, Luzhkov said Yeltsin should consider calling early elections and yesterday he said "society and the state must know from the president himself how he plans to deal with the situation."

Yesterday Luzhkov left Moscow for Stockholm, where he is scheduled to meet Sweden's Prime Minister Goran Persson and other top politicians and businessmen.

Luzhkov's deputy in charge of foreign relations, Sergei Yastrzhembsky -- a former Yeltsin's spokesman -- said this is Luzhkov's first trip as leader of the new party "Otechestvo" (Fatherland) he founded in December.

Luzhkov, with Yastrzhembsky's help, is trying to build the image of a moderate, market-oriented centrist politician similar to European leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair or Persson. According to Yastrzhembsky, Luzhkov hopes that Persson's Swedish Social-Democratic Party could become Otechestvo's first foreign political partner.