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Russia: Ailing Yeltsin Seen Nowhere, But Putin Is On Every Channel

Russian President Boris Yeltsin had another bout of illness this weekend, renewing speculation that he may be too ill to run Russia. While Yeltsin was in the hospital, his chosen successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, stepped right up to fill his shoes. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Putin has been cultivating an image of himself as a tough and active leader.

Moscow, 11 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- That the president is ailing is everyday news, but this weekend the tension was undeniable. This time, the same routine speculations about President Boris Yeltsin's fitness to run the country are being voiced while the military is fighting in Chechnya, and fighting for a victory that is seen as key to the administration's hold on power.

According to some experts, Yeltsin's sudden departure from the hospital this morning can be seen as a political show of force. Evgeny Volk is a political analyst with the Moscow-based Heritage Fund. He says that even this short bout of presidential illness has political consequences. Volk told RFE/RL that, in his words, "It's difficult to believe in this bout of flu. Especially when you know that Yeltsin's residence is equipped with all the medical equipment and round-the-clock medical staff." Yeltsin disappeared from view about two weeks ago. The only public sighting of him was some brief footage shown without sound. This was all the more noticeable since he was very active until mid-September, when television showed him almost daily discussing anti-terrorist measures with his government. Some analysts saw the president's withdrawal from the public eye as an attempt to distance himself from the risky military operation in Chechnya. In 1994, at the start of the first Chechen war, Yeltsin was taken conveniently ill with what most commentators then called a tactical sickness. While Russian troops launched an offensive in Chechnya that would end only twenty months later, Yeltsin underwent a "benign nose operation."

Yeltsin's infrequent appearance contrasts with the ubiquitous presence of his prime minister and official successor. Vladimir Putin's media schedule was full all weekend. On Saturday (Oct. 9), when Yeltsin was hospitalized, Putin was shown in Crimea, supporting Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. He then participated in live television coverage of a key Russian-Ukrainian football game. Later in the evening, he was to be seen in the stadium, watching the game. After that, Russian state television repeated a broadcast of a Putin interview.

All weekend long, current-affairs programs on various channels promoted the prime minister. Reporting on a proposed prison reform package announced by Putin, one gushed on about Putin's admirable "democratic values." On Sunday, television moderator Nikolai Svanidze praised Putin for maintaining stability in the country. Even the opposition-owned NTV suggested that Yeltsin temporarily transfer his powers to Putin.

The Russian constitution provides for a temporary transfer of some presidential powers to the prime minister "when the president is not capable of fulfilling his duties." The prime minister does not, however, inherit the right to dissolve the Duma, organize a referendum, or initiate constitutional changes.

But such a transfer is possible only on the president's initiative. And analysts say there is not much chance that the usually power-hungry Yeltsin would suggest such a transfer. The only time Yeltsin has relinquished his presidential powers was when he underwent heart surgery in 1996, and then prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin took over temporarily.

Volk thinks that Putin would have favored a temporary transfer of powers. In Volk's words, "It would be very useful for him (Putin) to boost his already growing popularity by playing president for a few weeks."

If Yeltsin suspected that Putin might want to take his place already, that could explain why he recovered from his flu so suddenly this morning, Volk says.

The last Yeltsin health scare was at the beginning of the year, when a bleeding ulcer kept him in the hospital for several weeks. Since then, he has been treated for bronchitis and recurrent back pain.