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NEWS ANALYSIS : Yeltsin's Illness May Lower Russia's Defenses for a Coup


MOSCOW — Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's latest spate of coronary trouble has caused heartbeats to skip throughout the political world as diplomats and lawmakers ponder the dark events that could unfold should the weakening champion of reform die in office.

Although foreign leaders publicly express confidence that any transition of power would be carried out in a constitutional manner, more candid political analysts warn of a looming succession struggle that could culminate in a military coup.

Yeltsin's spokesman disclosed Friday that the president will be under doctors' supervision at least until the end of November and that in the meantime all official visits and meetings have been postponed.

Despite his condition, the president remains in charge, spokesman Sergei K. Medvedev said.

Medvedev's cautious comments enhanced an impression left by other aides that the apparent heart attack suffered by Yeltsin on Thursday was more serious and disabling than the ailments that have sidelined him in the past.

Yeltsin is Russia's first freely elected leader in a millennium, and his Western backers credit him with building a foundation of democracy where dictatorship long stood.

But dispassionate assessment of the fragile 4-year-old political structure designed during Yeltsin's tenure gives rise to concern that it could be flattened by historical reflex should the empowered and the privileged react to uncertainty with armed might.

And in a country where most people have come to regard reforms with resentment, there would appear to be slim hope of a popular revolt to challenge an undemocratic grab for power.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin is designated by the Russian constitution to become interim head of state if the president dies or cannot function. But he is so closely tied with the Yeltsin-era policies now grossly unpopular with the masses that analysts suspect there would be little public resistance to a seizure of power by military or security forces promising order.

Real incomes continue to plummet, and inflation has yet to be stemmed, confronting the average wage-earner with declining living standards while crime and corruption flourish.

"Popular sentiment for a 'strong hand' may seriously intensify and create fertile ground for those forces that may want to stage a coup," warned Alexander T. Khlopyev, deputy director of the Institute for Socio-Political Studies.


He said he fears that if new leaders take over the Kremlin by force at this sensitive juncture, "a civil war is very, very possible."

Lawmakers in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, are also worried that members of Yeltsin's security entourage realize that they would have no role in a leadership headed by the more procedural Chernomyrdin and might fight any relinquishing of power by Yeltsin.

They predicted that the shadowy guards and advisers of the president's inner circle will keep him in office, ruling in his name to head off parliamentary elections in December and the next presidential race in June.

"There are people in the Kremlin who will do anything to keep the president alive. They will have him connected to an artificial heart, liver, lungs, whatever is needed," warned the Rev. Gleb P. Yakunin, a leader of the pro-reform Democratic Russia faction in the deeply divided Duma. "They need time to make sure they will stay in power. They will be able to run the country behind Yeltsin's back."

Independent legislator Andrei M. Makarov acknowledged that there is only "a chance" that succession would occur along the lines set down in the constitution written by Yeltsin. And Alexei V. Mitrofanov of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party noted that at no time in Russian history has the legally designated heir to power emerged on top.

Russia's resurgent Communists accuse Yeltsin's inner circle of seeking to control the political course from behind the scenes so they can put off the elections in which parties supportive of Yeltsin appear destined to lose.


Should a Parliament hostile to Yeltsin emerge from the Dec. 17 vote, as opinion polls suggest, another fierce confrontation could ensue like the one that drew tanks to central Moscow in October, 1993. This time, though, most analysts warn, Yeltsin and his supporters would likely be defeated.

"The people around the president will do their best to extend his authority, because they would also be extending their own authority," said Viktor I. Ilyukhin, a Communist who chairs the Duma's Security Committee. "The matter of the president's health is secondary. The medics will manage to keep him alive even if he is dead."

Politicians are hesitant to openly point fingers at Yeltsin aides who they fear harbor undemocratic intentions, likely out of concern that the influential advisers could be in positions to harm them in the future. But in confidence, they are nearly unanimous in naming two senior security figures, formerly of the KGB, as those they distrust.

They are Yeltsin's chief bodyguard and personal adviser, Gen. Alexander V. Korzhakov, and Col. Gen. Mikhail I. Barsukov, the newly appointed director of the Federal Security Service.

Many also fear that Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, who led Yeltsin's armed assault on parliamentary opponents two years ago, would choose force over conformance with the constitution if his power was at stake.

On the eve of Yeltsin's latest heart trouble, Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev alluded to the "dark forces" pressuring the president to abandon his reform course.

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