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An Outspoken Lebed Leaps Into Kremlin Power Vacuum

Russia: With President Yeltsin ill, his security chief blames inner circle for state of armed forces, economy.

September 27, 1996|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — With Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin hospitalized and out of the Kremlin for the rest of the year, the ambitious general who is considered most likely to succeed him jumped into the power vacuum Thursday with a damning harangue against the current administration.

Alexander I. Lebed, a retired war hero, celebrated his first 100 days as Security Council chief with loud public laments that Russian leaders have beggared their armed forces to the point of mutiny and pushed this society's neglected citizens to the verge of revolt.

He directed most of the blame at his chief rival for power, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, but also distanced himself from the ailing Yeltsin.

Lebed complained in one newspaper interview that some in Yeltsin's inner circle are "yesterday's men"; in another he said that he was excluded from the clique making decisions in the president's absence.

The blatant grab for the limelight as Yeltsin retreated to rest up for heart bypass surgery added to fears often expressed by observers here and abroad that Lebed, 46, lacks the refinement and intellect to rule this vast, nuclear-armed federation. But as the Russian figure now enjoying the broadest popular support, Lebed is considered the strongest contender in an undeclared battle for the mantle of heir apparent.

Meanwhile, American heart surgery pioneer Michael DeBakey spread the word in a barrage of brief interviews with The Times and other American media that Yeltsin is healthy enough to continue tackling some of his presidential workload and that the Russian leader will be spending the next six to 10 weeks on a special diet and exercise regime.

DeBakey and leading Russian cardiologists examined Yeltsin on Wednesday before advising him to delay the recommended triple or quadruple bypass operation until his heart has more time to heal.

"Within the past month there has been significant improvement in the heart function," said DeBakey, 88, a famed heart surgeon from Houston. "That suggests, you see, that it could improve further. The more improvement we have in the heart function before the operation, the less the risk of the operation and the better it will be for the result."

Another reason for delaying the surgery, he explained, was the need to know why Yeltsin has suffered significant blood loss since a heart attack in late June. DeBakey speculated that the gastrointestinal bleeding could be an ulcer induced by aspirin intake. But he noted that it is vital to be certain of the cause. "We wouldn't want to go into an operation with some kind of blood abnormality. That would be catastrophic," he said.

Lebed, at a news conference, attributed a recent fall in stock prices and administrative gridlock to Yeltsin's illness. "A lot depends on the president's health," he said. "There is no will in the state. Many have assumed the position of onlookers and are waiting to see what happens. This is the fate of the Russian intelligentsia. Before the [1917 Bolshevik] Revolution, they sat and waited. After the revolution, they went to jail."

The security chief, who has already said he hopes to succeed Yeltsin as head of state, complained of being handcuffed by dysfunctional relations among the branches of government. Even after more than three months in office, he said he is still baffled by the decision-making process in government.

"The president is a human being and like any person he may fall ill," Lebed said. "But corresponding power structures are obliged to take measures."

Shortly after Yeltsin's Sept. 5 announcement that he needed heart surgery, Lebed urged him to hand over power to Chernomyrdin. Five days later, Yeltsin signed a decree conferring administrative duties on his prime minister but retaining control of the "nuclear button" and unspecified other responsibilities. Yeltsin has continued to issue decrees and sign documents, including condolences sent Thursday after a school bus accident in southern Russia that killed 21 children.

But Lebed's complaints that the army is on the brink of mutiny and the economy at the edge of collapse made clear that he believes vital matters of presidential authority are falling through the cracks.

The short-term outlook for Russia's leadership appeared to be more of the same. Debakey said Yeltsin had pressed for a medical go-ahead to resume working in the Kremlin. "I said I didn't recommend that, but that he could spend several hours a day at work" in the hospital, the U.S. surgeon said.

While the medical panel charged with caring for Yeltsin has been decidedly upbeat in its assessments of his condition and prospects for full recovery, others privy to the cardiology conference that reviewed the president's case were less optimistic. "My personal expectation is that the surgery will never take place," one Western participant said.

Should Yeltsin die in office or concede he is too weak to rule, Chernomyrdin would become president for up to three months until new elections could be held. But there are no constitutional provisions for removing the president from office on health grounds against his will.

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