Russia's sickness

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 September, 1996, 12:00am

Last November, when President Boris Yeltsin lay recovering from a second heart attack, a leading Russian newspaper announced in banner headlines: 'The end of the Yeltsin era'. Instead, Mr Yeltsin went on to be re-elected.

Nevertheless, it must be unrealistic to expect the ailing 65-year-old to make another effective return to public life from the sickbed after his latest setback. Apart from the strain on his heart, alcohol has taken a toll on other organs, and his doctors are understandably anxious that the world knows the extent of the task before them.

Mr Yeltsin now faces calls from the Communist opposition citing constitutional rules which demand fresh elections if the health of the leader is under threat. At the same time, Alexander Lebed, the charismatic former general with whom Mr Yeltsin has reached an uneasy alliance, is already saying he sees himself as the next Russian leader.

The transition from communism has been a disillusioning experience for many Russians. The economy is in chaos, crime is rife and the re-election of Mr Yeltsin had more to do with the man himself than his policies or ideology.

His prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who will deputise during the president's illness, has already clashed with Mr Lebed. There is scant hope of a genuinely united front between the two, but it will be hoped they at least recognise the dangers of an open split at this time.

If Russia's democracy is to survive, there must be calm and a firmness of purpose in Moscow. By trying to hide the truth about his illness, Mr Yeltsin showed his determination to hang on to power. It may be that his undoubted courage and iron will may pull him through again. For the sake of Russia and the world, we must hope that the Yeltsin era has not ended. However, if this is so, it must also be hoped Mr Yeltsin makes the remains of his era less of a one-man show.