Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 4

By Elena Dikun

Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s latest illness came as no shock. It is no secret that the head of state has been very unwell for some time, and that he spends most of his time at his country residences or the Central Clinical Hospital, only rarely visiting the Kremlin. The only surprise was the new diagnosis, complementing the high-ranking patient’s array of illnesses–a bleeding stomach ulcer. The political establishment barely reacted to Yeltsin’s hospitalization because everyone has come to terms with the idea that the state is quite capable of functioning without an active president: There is the government, the State Duma and the Federation Council; if worst comes to worst there is the president’s administration. Even Boris Yeltsin’s worst enemies threw no insults his way. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov even wished Yeltsin a speedy recovery, though he did comment that the president’s powers should be transferred to the prime minister and promised that the deputies and senators would support Primakov.

It was only Yuri Luzhkov who said that “the question of early presidential elections exists. We can all see it and it would be hypocritical not to recognize it, or to recognize it and keep silent.” The mayor of Moscow believes that Yeltsin should resign and announce this to the Russian people as soon as possible. Luzhkov’s position is understandable–for him, the sooner the elections take place, the better. Moreover, he can only gain votes by openly opposing Yeltsin, and doing so would be much more difficult for him than openly opposing, say, Zyuganov. This is why the Moscow city boss is deliberately bringing the situation to a head. The Kremlin, however, reacted quite calmly to Luzhkov’s statement.

On the other hand, the president’s team has been seriously disheartened by the fact that the Kremlin project–code-named the “political rehabilitation of the patron”, has collapsed. This was proposed by Nikolai Bordyuzha, the new head of the president’s administration. It looks as though the alternative scenario–the “political hospitalization of Yeltsin,” which Bordyuzha’s predecessor Valentin Yumashev proposed–was more realistic, at least from the medical point of view. Last autumn, after the fiasco of Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Tashkent and Almaty, the president’s closest circle was forced to speak openly about Yeltsin’s limited capabilities, admitting that he could only work at most a couple of days each week, and even then for no more than two or three hours at a time. In an attempt to salvage some sense of presidential dignity, the Kremlin devised a plan to gradually move the head of state away from state affairs. It was proposed that Yeltsin concentrate his efforts on amendments to the constitution and grooming a successor, and free himself from routine management affairs and foreign visits. The main aim of Yumashev’s plan was to keep the president in office until 2000. In off-the-record conversations, Yumashev called on journalists to show some public spirit and help the administration create a “smoke-screen” around the absentee head of state.

Yeltsin, however, rejected the political hospitalization plan in favor of returning to the helm. It was clear that new people would be needed for his new tasks: Yumashev had already played his part. At the beginning of December last year, then, returning to work after another period of “sick leave,” the president swept his office clean by sacking Yumashev and three of his deputies–Yuri Yarov, who for years had tirelessly kept watch over Yeltsin at the hospital and on holiday (which gained him the nickname of “nurse”), Yevgeny Savostyanov and Mikhail Komissar. The new head of the administration, the experienced Chekist, Colonel-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, was entrusted with the task of resurrecting Yeltsin’s more familiar image of the boss- or Tsar-president.

The administration staff went straight to work, inspired by the president’s pre-Christmas burst of energy: “Just look how good Boris Nikolaevich looks–it’s a miracle,” they happily told the public. Two ostentatious events were to mark the president’s return to active political life–a major reorganization of his administration and a foreign trip. The Kremlin administration, it was thought, would thus recover its former glory and, in Bordyuzha’s words, play “a key role, no less important than that of the government.” Even at the draft stage, however, the “radical” reorganization of the administration amounted to no more than a banal reduction in staff and merger of overlapping departments, and it was not even possible to implement this because the president returned to the hospital without signing the decree.

Even more important for the new Kremlin team was the planned state visit to Paris. This trip was a matter of presidential honor: The world must know that talk of Yeltsin’s being both unable to travel and under constant medical supervision was nothing more than idle gossip. Yeltsin’s team, mindful of the many embarrassments of previous visits, did try to keep the Paris trip as small-scale as possible–two formal meetings with the president and the prime minister of France, an official luncheon and a fifteen-minute press conference. Dmitri Yakushkin, the president’s press secretary, went to Paris to prepare for the visit. When he was there, however, answering questions from French journalists about the program for the visit, he suddenly announced that Yeltsin would announce a new strategy for Russian domestic and foreign policy while he was in Paris. World news bulletins repeated this. Leading Western press agencies rushed to get accreditation for their bureau chiefs for the Paris visit. Moscow realized that the extra hubbub surrounding the president’s visit–with the world watching his every step and hanging on his every word–was not what they or Yeltsin needed. On Yakushkin’s return home, he was severely reprimanded and the administration moved quickly to disavow what he had said in Paris. Two weeks prior to Yeltsin’s scheduled departure, Nikolai Bordyuzha summoned the press and said that the president would not be making any announcements in Paris. The program for the visit, Bordyuzha said, had not yet been confirmed.

Yeltsin himself probably already knew at this stage that even a symbolic trip abroad at the planned time was impossible: He urgently needed to go to the hospital. Getting Yeltsin ready for action had required a great deal of medical activity, but in trying to reinvigorate him, his doctors and closest aides achieved the opposite.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s protracted illness means that the traditional address to the Federal Assembly, planned for late February or early March, may be canceled. This year the president’s administration, and not Yeltsin, is drafting the text for the address, and is doing so in complete secrecy. “We always want Boris Nikolaevich to have something new to say,” Nikolai Bordyuzha explained. We have learned, however, that the provisional title for the address is “Russia: from the 20th to the 21st Century”.

Yeltsin has set himself certain tasks for 1999. His first priorities are to stabilize the political situation in the country, ensure civilized elections to the State Duma, and fight against extremism and corruption. Constitutional reform, which was to have been the central theme of Yumashev’s plan, has very nearly been given up for lost: the president is no longer planning to rework the Basic Law. It appears as if those who are counting on powers being redistributed in parliament and the cabinet will have to wait. In any case, the day that Yeltsin returned to the hospital, his press secretary Dmitri Yakushkin again stressed that “full authority” remains with Yeltsin and that there will be “no transfer of powers” to Prime Minister Primakov.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with “Obshchaya gazeta.”