Yeltsin set to tackle Russia's `sickness'

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The Independent Online
Relief and euphoria swept through Boris Yeltsin's team of doctors yesterday - spin and otherwise - as it became clear that he is steadily recovering from surgery on a heart that was more diseased than the world ever realised.

Mr Yeltsin has made no secret of the fact that he would have been unable to fulfil his second term as president without Tuesday's quintuple-bypass operation, but it has now become clear just how close he was to collapse.

"He could not have carried on much longer," said Dr Michael DeBakey, the 88-year-old American cardiologist who acted as a consultant during the seven hours of surgery. For the first time, the surgeon admitted that when he examined the president in September, he found him to be "incapacitated, considerably incapacitated."

Not any longer, however - if his doctors are to be believed. Mr Yeltsin could be walking by today, working by Christmas, and back on his beloved tennis court within four months, according to Dr DeBakey, who appears to have become an unofficial Kremlin PR man.

The president's heart, which a few months ago was working to 20 per cent of its capacity, was back to normal. The first 48 hours after bypass operations are considered crucial, as they reveal whether there has been any adverse reaction - such as bleeding, kidney failure, or damage to the central nervous system. But at 4pm yesterday, the Kremlin said there were no complications.

Mr Yeltsin may be wishing that the same could be said of Russia. Before dawn yesterday, he reclaimed his powers of presidency after handing them over to his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, before going under the knife 23 hours earlier. The speed with which he recrowned himself bears the fingerprints of his chief-of-staff, Anatoly Chubais, who has become hugely influential during the president's illness, and was the architect of the plan for the temporary transfer of power. In doing so, both he and Mr Yeltsin resumed responsibility for a country that their opponents say is as sick as the president's heart used to be.

The most immediate problem is the financial crisis - a $7.9 billion (pounds 4.8 billion) wages arrears, a collapsing welfare sys- tem, and a record for failing to collect taxes that is so dismal the IMF withheld the last tranche of its $10.2bn loan to Russia.

Then there is the running sore of Chechnya, the worst blot on Mr Yeltsin's record. The peace deal appears to have survived the firing of the presidential envoy to Chechnya, Alexander Lebed, but its future is uncertain.

The Yeltsin administration must also redefine its already- stressed relationship with Russia's provinces. Next year, the president will no longer be able to secure loyalty to the Kremlin by appointing his own officials to head regional admini- strations, and firing those who fail to toe the Moscow line. That lever of power will decline as regional leaders are elected.

Matters would be easier if the Kremlin did not also have to worry about more political feuding on its doorstep, which erupted during Mr Yeltsin's absence. Still at large is the president's former bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov, whom he fired in June. The ex-KGB man claims to have a potentially explosive collection of "kompromat" - compromising material, gleaned from his years in the Kremlin.

However, Mr Yeltsin is proving himself the ultimate survivor, a comeback kid of Rus- sian politics whose political obituary has been written prematurely more than once. But he has a mighty task on his hands, even if he is now back in fighting form.