Russia’s political and economic future hinges on the declining health of ailing President Boris Yeltsin. The fiery leader’s chronic illness is curtailing his leadership abilities and diminishing confidence among political allies that he maintains the capacity to deal with the nation’s crumbling economic infrastructure and troubled military. At least two heart attacks, liver problems, diabetes and recurrent back pains are understandably cutting into the time Yeltsin is able to devote to the presidency, and have required far too many inopportune absences. Now the Russian president is awaiting triple-bypass surgery, but is not expected to be strong enough to endure the operation for at least six weeks. Certainly, Yeltsin’s debilitating physical infirmities deserve compassion and sympathy from supporters around the world. Nevertheless, he must quit acting like he’s merely battling an autumn cold and publicly acknowledge that Russia may soon require new leadership should he not fully recuperate.
Medical experts, in fact, suggest that Yeltsin is unlikely to regain the vigor necessary to tackle the crises that face Russia. These very crises threaten to decimate Yeltsin’s efforts to build democratic institutions and implement market reforms. Yeltsin owes it the Russian people to concede that his chances for complete recovery are grim. That way he can use whatever political legitimacy he may still have to encourage Russia to choose a democratic successor committed to furthering the nation’s economic and political transformation.
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is probably the most credible and politically viable candidate Yeltsin could name to fill his position should that be necessary. Yeltsin has already handed some of his powers over to Chernomyrdin, including foreign policy and domestic law enforcement. The prime minister has tough hands-on experience in domestic and international affairs and is garnering worldwide respect in his current role as Russia’s surrogate leader.
A burgeoning power struggle reminiscent of the recent elections, however, is threatening to exacerbate Russia’s persistent social and economic strife. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who lost to Yeltsin in July’s run-off election, is demanding that the president resign. Zyuganov contends that if the Russian people had known the real extent of Yeltsin’s illness, Zyuganov would have won the election. But a collapse into the communist past would assuredly cripple Russia’s ability to keep up with its trading partners as the global economy spins into the hypercapitalist 21st century.
National Security Advisor General Alexander Lebed is also campaigning for Yeltsin’s position. While Lebed’s popularity has increased since he brokered an end to hostilities in Chechnya, he doesn’t have the diplomatic skills or political depth to deal with Russia’s complex economic and social problems.
Russia’s vaguely worded constitution temporarily grants all powers of the presidency to Chernomyrdin should Yeltsin not recover from his pending surgery. Chernomyrdin, however, would be required to call new elections within three months of claiming Yeltsin’s post. Yeltsin must make it clear to the Russian people that Chernomyrdin is the only alternative among the likely candidates who will work to create a politically strong and economically competitive Russia.