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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

YELTSIN DILEMMA

The Russian leader's frailty poses challenges -- and stark choices


DURING THE CELEBRATORY PARADES that the Russians used to stage in Red Square, foreign observers kept a close eye on whether the current ruler took his customary place on top of Lenin's Tomb. That way they could at least be reasonably sure he was still breathing. Since the great rallies followed the Soviet Union into extinction, onlookers have had to rely on other clues to reassure themselves that the top is still viable. Last week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin met his French counterpart, Mr. Jacques Chirac, in Moscow. But the world seemed less interested in the critical issue of NATO expansion than whether Mr. Yeltsin would be well enough to go through the formalities. Only a week before, Russian authorities had announced the cancellation of a long-scheduled trip to the Netherlands because of the president's precarious health.

Mr. Yeltsin's frailty is bad enough in terms of its implications for his country's stability. What worries other nations -- especially Russia's neighbors -- even more is Moscow's lack of an orderly succession process. And such anxieties are heightened by the fact that Russia is a military colossus undergoing major, potentially destabilizing economic, political and social changes. For the past quarter-century, except Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev's tenure, Russia has been run by sick men. The Soviet Union steadily atrophied during the long senescence of Leonid Brezhnev, who died on the job. His heir, Yuri Andropov, soon succumbed to kidney failure, only to be succeeded by the ailing Konstantin Chernenko. Mr. Yeltsin himself has rarely appeared in public since his re-election last July. In September, his doctor wondered if he was even healthy enough to have a heart operation. The president no sooner seemed to have recovered from his quintuple-bypass operation in November than he was stricken by pneumonia and out of action again.

Considering such recent history, it is odd that Russia's Constitution seems to presuppose a vigorous leader. The document invests more power in the chief executive than almost any other constitution in the world that can still be called democratic. Mr. Yeltsin himself pushed these changes through in a national referendum shortly after he dispatched tanks to put down a revolt by parliamentary opponents in 1993, granting himself powers then held by the rebellious legislature. That revolt was led by Mr. Alexander Rutskoi, whose vice-president's post was nixed in the revised charter. Today, if the president is incapacitated, the prime minister acts in his place for three months, pending a new election to choose a successor. There is, strictly speaking, no constitutional provision to deal with presidential incapacitation. During his recent heart operation, Mr. Yeltsin delegated his powers temporarily to his senior ministers.

What can be done to stabilize the situation? In Russia itself, there is growing talk about changing the Constitution. The need to improve the laws governing succession, such as re-establishing the office of vice-president, is obvious. Some also want to dilute the president's extensive powers, lest they end up in the hands of an aggressive leader -- like Mr. Alexander Lebed, the former general. He is now Russia's most popular political figure, largely because he made peace in Chechnya. After his dismissal as national security adviser last September, Mr. Lebed attended a production of Ivan the Terrible and joked to journalists: "I want to learn how to rule." For his part, Mr. Yeltsin is against anyone "using" his illness to weaken the presidency or remove him from office.

Though Mr. Chirac said last week that his host looked well, it is by no means clear that the 66-year-old Russian leader is shipshape again. Given his poor health record and his history of heavy drinking, Mr. Yeltsin may not survive his term, which expires in 2000. Continued drift is likely for Russia, with possibly intensified infighting among the president's top advisers, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, who have basically run the country the past six months. They carry a strong odor of corruption, even though, like their boss, they have been embraced by Washington as evidently better than the alternatives on the right or the left. If Mr. Yeltsin dies, they might even be tempted to cancel the election and rule by decree. Alternatively, there could be a debilitating contest among various factions -- the premier, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, Mr. Lebed and the Communists, who remain a major force in the legislature.

Another presidential election would also upset Russia's fragile economic recovery. Mr. Yeltsin bounced back from the depths of unpopularity, occasioned largely by the prolonged war in Chechnya, to win last July's poll by generously dispensing government benefits. He doubled pensions and paid back salaries to workers in strategically placed state enterprises. (Later, he had to renege on some of his promises in order to keep the budget deficit from expanding dangerously.) A new presidential campaign could well be accompanied by another orgy of government spending. That would undermine the unexpected economic progress achieved under Finance Minister Alexander Livshits. Inflation, once in triple digits, is way down, and GNP, after falling for five straight years, looks to have bottomed out.

Outsiders, of course, cannot easily influence events in Russia. Washington-backed International Monetary Fund disbursements, along with a German-led rescheduling of Moscow's debts, will help keep the Russian economy going through the winter. Beyond that, the Americans should seriously reconsider their strategies and priorities in their relationship with Moscow. Too often Washington has invested its hopes and interests in one Russian leader. First it was Mr. Gorbachev, the "dismantler of communism." Then it was Mr. Yeltsin, the "champion of democracy." Who is next? Interestingly, Mr. Lebed was invited to Washington to attend President Bill Clinton's second inauguration ceremony last month. Does the move herald a healthy outreach to different forces in Russian politics -- or is the U.S. simply preparing to mold a new "savior" of Russian democracy?

Under the present circumstances, what Russia needs above all is stability and economic development. An unstable Russia may be more dangerous than an autocratic Russia, given that a reversion to old-style totalitarian rule is highly unlikely. After all, Moscow still controls thousands of nuclear weapons. Fears are growing that chaos in Russia would destabilize surrounding territory. And even if the Russians are unlikely to fire its nuclear warheads at anyone, concerns remain about "loose nukes" (weapons not under firm central control), not to mention increasing drug dealing, crime and illegal arms sales.

As its most powerful backer and benefactor, the U.S. should adopt a policy that addresses these concerns squarely. Such an approach would pay far greater dividends than one that consists of trying to pick "winners" -- and then sticking with them through thick and thin. Mr. Yeltsin is a sick man in charge of one of the most powerful countries on earth. If it falls apart, everyone is in trouble.


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