Date is set for Yeltsin's surgery

Moscow - Bewildered, unstable, and struggling to find its new identity on the international stage, Russia now faces at least four months without an active president after surgeons decided to go ahead with a triple, or perhaps quadruple, bypass operation on Boris Yeltsin, writes Phil Reeves.

After a three-hour meeting which had the world on tenterhooks, the President's team of doctors announced that his heart muscle was too damaged from the operation to go ahead immediately, but that it could take place after six to 10 weeks.

There had been fears that the doctors would conclude it was too dangerous to operate on Mr Yeltsin, which would have made him a president in little more than name only, undermining his credibility and possibly forcing him from office.

In the event, the momentous consequences for Russia may have made this option impossible. As they gathered at Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital, where Mr Yeltsin has spent 13 days, his medical advisers will have been aware their decision was not so much about an ailing heart as the fate of a country with an immature democracy, uncertain free market reforms, and a huge stash of nuclear weapons. Without Mr Yeltsin, Russia's future would have been even more unpredictable than it is now.

Even so, his doctors sounded genuinely optimistic given the revelations of the last week, which included the discovery that Mr Yeltsin had a third heart attack less than three months ago, after over-exerting himself during his campaign to win a second term in office.

"There is no reason why the President should not be restored to his full normal activity," said Dr Michael DeBakey, the 88-year-old American heart surgeon. In a twist that would have been unbelievable to most of Mr Yeltsin's Soviet predecessors - he has joined the team, having been instructed by President Bill Clinton to make it his "number one priority".

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