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Yeltsin's Ability to Work is 'Limited,' Aide Says

Russia: Heart condition keeps leader's time on job to as little as 30 minutes a day, spokesman concedes.

September 25, 1996|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — As an international medical tribunal convened to judge Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's fitness for heart surgery, his spokesman conceded Tuesday that the Kremlin leader's ability to govern is "limited" and that Yeltsin has been putting in workdays as short as 30 minutes.

The comments by presidential spokesman Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky served to damn Yeltsin's condition with faint praise and added weight to observations by cardiologists that the ailing 65-year-old Russian leader may be too feeble to survive an operation.

Still, the Kremlin held to its line that Yeltsin is fulfilling his presidential duties and that Communist Party demands for the head of state to step down are motivated by political ambitions.

Yeltsin met with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin for about half an hour Tuesday to discuss the economy, politics and the situation in breakaway Chechnya, Yastrzhembsky told reporters at a Kremlin briefing.

Russian television news programs showed clumsily edited videotape of a silent Yeltsin seated, stiff and smiling weakly, during his visit with Chernomyrdin at the Central Clinical Hospital.

Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, who was defeated by Yeltsin in a hotly contested presidential election July 3, has accused Yeltsin of deceiving the Russian people by hiding the severity of his illness. On Tuesday, Gennady N. Seleznyov, the Communist leader of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, demanded that the full results of Yeltsin's examination and evaluation by an international cardiology panel be released to the public.

Yastrzhembsky said the surgeons would meet with Yeltsin today and that their findings would be disclosed, including the expected date and place for the operation.

The growing controversy over Yeltsin's condition and prospects for a return to robust rule underscore that, even a decade after the advent of glasnost (openness), the Kremlin is moving with baby steps toward being truthful with the public.

Kremlin officials harshly condemned a Monday report in the Financial Times in which anonymous sources were quoted as saying Yeltsin can only work for 15 minutes at a time.

"It is well known that such publications in the past about the health of various statesmen caused changes in stock prices on world financial markets, allowing some who possessed that information to make instant fortunes," Yastrzhembsky said, suggesting an ulterior motive for the respected British newspaper's report. (Russian stock prices fell 3% on Monday after weekend news about Yeltsin's troubled condition; another 5% drop was recorded Tuesday.)

But Yastrzhembsky's description of Yeltsin's competence to run the country was far from convincing. "Any normal person must realize that the president's working capacity is currently limited by the careful preparations for his operation," the newly appointed spokesman observed, noting that Yeltsin has met with top Kremlin officials three times since being hospitalized Sept. 13.

Each day, a package of documents is brought for the president's attention, Yastrzhembsky said. "The work with them, when the president is not busy with [medical] procedures or resting, takes from 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours," he explained in describing Yeltsin's workday.

Officials here have also sought to characterize the conference of leading cardiologists, gathered here for a three-day session, as a coincidental professional meeting that just happens to be addressing myocardial ischemia--the heart ailment Yeltsin suffers from; the Russians also have sought to depict the top-flight medical experts as examining Yeltsin's preoperative test results while in the neighborhood.

Dr. Renat Akchurin, the Moscow surgeon considered most likely to operate on Yeltsin, disclosed in recent interviews that the president appears to have suffered a heart attack in the days leading to the July runoff election, and that other illnesses and organ damage could make open-heart surgery too dangerous for Yeltsin. The Kremlin leader was hospitalized twice last year following heart episodes, at least one of which is believed to have been a heart attack. These kept him out of the Kremlin for more than four months.

After casting doubt over the weekend on prospects for successful bypass surgery, Akchurin told reporters outside the medical gathering Tuesday that there was no chance of the surgery being called off. "It may be postponed" for a month or two, he said, to allow improvement of the patient's condition.

Akchurin studied with Dr. Michael DeBakey, 88, the famed Houston cardiologist and bypass pioneer who arrived here Monday to take part in the heart conference. DeBakey deemed Russian surgeons highly qualified to handle Yeltsin's operation and said he was here merely to offer advice.

Yeltsin has already handed over some administrative powers to Chernomyrdin for the duration of the president's treatment but has retained control of the "nuclear button." And while state-run media cast Yeltsin as the figure still in charge, the president's incapacitation is believed to be fostering a power struggle between Chernomyrdin and Security Council chief Alexander I. Lebed.

If Yeltsin were to step down or die before completing his new, four-year term, Chernomyrdin would take over as president but would be required to call new elections within three months.

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