Kremlin fights for Yeltsin's survival

Rivals set to call for resignation if doctors rule out heart bypass for Russian President
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The Independent Online
The Kremlin yesterday began preparing the ground for a battle to keep Boris Yeltsin in office even if his surgeons decide today that it is too dangerous to go ahead with a heart bypass - a decision that would turn him into a lame duck president.

As concern over the President's health reached a crescendo, Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, sought to dampen speculation that the President may soon quit, saying such suggestions were "out of the question now".

The Prime Minister - who would stand in as president until another election, if Mr Yeltsin leaves - was speaking after his weekly meeting with the President, who spent an eleventh day in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital awaiting news of his fate.

Today Mr Yeltsin's team of top surgeons will decide whether he is fit enough to have a bypass operation, and if so, when. Should they conclude that it is too risky, Mr Yeltsin's future will be thrown into doubt, as he concedes he cannot run the country properly without having the operation.

There have only been half-hearted calls for Mr Yeltsin's resignation, mostly from the Communist camp, since his top surgeon, Renat Atchurin, revealed the operation may have to be postponed or cancelled, and that the President had another heart attack shortly before July's elections.

Yesterday Mr Atchurin said the operation would not be put off, but could be postponed for weeks. But his back-track looks suspiciously as if he was pressured by the Kremlin, which is eager to demostrate that Mr Yeltsin, who was shown briefly on Russian TV, looking unwell, is still in charge,

Demands for his resignation would multiply if the operation is called off. Though vague, article 92 of the constitution says he must leave office if he is "persistently unable" to perform his duties because of ill health.

Mr Chernomyrdin's remarks coincided with a publicity offensive by the Kremlin, which said Mr Yeltsin was working on up to 70 documents a day, and was abreast with key international developments. The President's press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, denied a Financial Times report saying Mr Yeltsin has had a stroke and can only work for 15 minutes a day. However, he conceded sometimes Mr Yeltsin completes his paperwork in half an hour.

Mr Yeltsin's bleak outlook worsened yesterday when General Alexander Korzhakov, the former chief of the presidential guard and Mr Yeltsin's close confidant, made clear he was now backing his fellow general, Alexander Lebed, Russia's security tsar, as the next president.

"I don't miss Yeltsin," said the hardline general who was fired in June. In an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, he claimed to have evidence that top government officials salted away millions of dollars in secret bank accounts. Mr Lebed has appeared happy to be courted by the general.

The Yeltsin administration's efforts to forestall calls for another election are scarcely surprising. The latest poll placed Mr Lebed ahead by 19 points, with 34 per cent. Behind him came Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader on 15 per cent, while Mr Chernomyrdin had 9 per cent.