Publication: Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 128

On November 4, Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin retracted the claim he had made the day before that, during President Yeltsin’s hospitalization, he would supervise the work of the "power ministries." (Normally these four ministries — defense, security, foreign and internal affairs — report directly to the president.) Chernomyrdin said journalists "misconstrued" remarks he made after visiting the president in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital (nicknamed the "little Kremlin"). Analysts concluded that Chernomyrdin had been slapped down by powerful members of the presidential apparatus said to resent the heightened profile the prime minister has assumed in the days since Yeltsin suffered his second heart attack.

When Yeltsin suffered his first heart attack four months ago, the reaction both at home and abroad was muted, largely because it was assumed that, in line with the constitution, power would pass to the prime minister if the president was incapacitated. This time around, things are a bit different. Now it is clear that Yeltsin’s poor state health may prevent his running for a second presidential term next year, and many are wondering whether Russia’s fledgling democracy is strong enough to handle the transition. Relations between the president and the prime minister have cooled in recent months, and policy differences have emerged between Chernomyrdin and those closest to Yeltsin. Meanwhile, the prime minister has established himself at the head of a political movement which, despite its lack of popularity with much of the electorate, is emerging as one of only about five parties likely to do well in December’s parliamentary elections. This seems to have aroused suspicion among members of the presidential apparatus, uncomfortably aware that, if Yeltsin goes, so, too, will their jobs.

Commentators in the Russian media are also warning that, if Yeltsin is incapacitated for any length of time, there could be a messy constitutional crisis instead of the smooth transition the constitution is supposed to provide. Article 92 of the constitution states that, "in all instances where the president is unable to perform his duties," those duties are temporarily transferred to the prime minister, who must call presidential elections within a period of no more than three months. But, argues Oleg Rumyantsev, a fierce critic of Yeltsin’s constitution, the constitution "deliberately avoids" specifying how the president’s ability to perform his functions is to be determined. "In all probability, this decision should be approved by the Constitutional Court when such a conclusion has been reached by a state medical commission appointed by the Parliament. But this commission does not exist, so we need a separate federal law establishing such a commission as soon as possible. However, a draft law was killed by the State Duma on first reading in May," Rumyantsev complained to Argumenty i fakty. (6)