Uneasy silence surrounds Yeltsin

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The Kremlin carried on with its uneasy, Soviet-style silence over the health of Boris Yeltsin yesterday, as the world waited to discover whether he is fit enough to go ahead with a heart bypass operation, or whether his second term in office will fizzle out almost before it has started.

The Russian President's team of surgeons will meet tomorrow to discuss the next stage in his preparation for surgery, following revelations by their leader, Renat Akchurin, that it could be postponed for up to two months, or even cancelled - such is the damaged state of Mr Yeltsin's heart.

Yesterday, they were joined by an 88-year-old renowned American cardiologist, Michael Debakey, who flew into Moscow amid continuing uncertainty, both in Russia and the West, over the future of Mr Yeltsin's presidency.

There are several options. The first is that Mr Yeltsin temporarily hands over power to his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the operation goes ahead, in six to eight weeks time. Claims by doctors that the President is determined to have surgery ring true. Although given to stints of prolonged apathy, Mr Yeltsin is generally too active and too fond of power to be happily put out to grass. He will almost certainly be willing to take greater risks than most heart patients.

If the bypass is a success, he will resume office and Russia will stagger on until the next crisis, although it has been tarnished by the latest events. Russia's voters may not worry much that they were duped into electing a seriously ill president by officials who hushed up the fact that he had a third heart attack, shortly before they voted.

Government skulduggery rarely surprises Russians, whose political expectations were destroyed by decades of Communist rule, and remain low. Moreover, most people have long known that the 65-year-old president was unhealthy, and a fierce drinker to boot, even if they did not know exactly how bad his condition was when they went to the polls in July.

But Mr Yeltsin's political opponents, particularly the Communists, will have taken note. Their faith in the integrity of Russia's democracy, never great, was further dented by the media coverage of the presidential election, which was overwhelmingly biased towards Mr Yeltsin. The cover-up, in which most of the media collaborated, will only deepen their impulse to fight dirty next time around.

If the President does not have the bypass operation the picture becomes more murky. Mr Yeltsin, who has virtually admitted he will be incapable of governing unless he has surgery, will be under some pressure to resign from elements in parliament. His opponents will brandish Article 92 of the 1993 constitution, which says he must step down if he is "persistently incapable" of carrying out his duties. It is, however, not spelt out precisely how incapacitated he must be for this to apply.

But, even if he becomes little more than a figurehead - an ageing recluse, kept alive for his signature - there will be still greater pressure on him to stay on, from the West, which helped bankroll his re-election, and from his inner circle.

Neither Mr Chernomyrdin or his chief-of-staff, Anatoly Chubais, are likely to want another poll in the near future; they know Alexander Lebed, secretary of the Security Council, would probably win. They need time to allow the general's popularity to wear off, and for his fragile peace deal in Chechyna to fall apart. Mr Chernomyrdin would have a particularly delicate balancing act. He harbours ambitions of his own, which could suffer is he spends too long propping up a greatly weakened president, elected on false pretences.

But what of the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who came second to Mr Yeltsin in July's run-off? Yesterday, during a trip to the Council of Europe's parliament in Strasbourg, he called for the President's resignation, and declared his election as fraudulent because of the cover-up over the heart attack.

Yet this relatively mild burst of rhetoric may have been more for the benefit of his party follower, who would expect no less, than a genuine call to arms. Mr Zyuganov also knows that Mr Lebed - a far more flamboyant figure than he - is the favourite to fill Mr Yeltsin's shoes. The nationalist- leaning general is likely to undermine his own attempts to style himself as more of a patriot than a Communist. A second defeat, hot on the heels of the last, could do fatal damage to the party.

This lack of appetite for another electoral battle suggests the country's political limbo could last for months, unless Mr Yeltsin's fate is decisively settled, either by the operation, or by his departure. Even if his surgery goes ahead, he will be out of action until Christmas at least.

t Mr Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, yesterday denied a report in the Financial Times saying that the President was capable of working only 15 minutes a day.