THESE days it is hard to believe the ailing, puffy-faced president Boris Yeltsin is the same man who seven years ago stood atop a tank and held off a Communist coup. Indeed, as the rouble goes into a free fall, triggering off a seemingly bottomless economic collapse and visions of hyperinflation, and as political paralysis grips the Kremlin, there is no saying which way Russia is headed—that is, if at all it can be nudged out of the current inertia.
Last week, as US president Bill Clinton came to the summit "of the lame ducks", it also became increasingly clear that this time around the West would not pump in billions to resuscitate the Russian economy. While Yeltsin was seeking the helping hand of "droog Bill" (buddy Bill), Clinton left no doubt that in the current situation he can't go beyond offering Yeltsin moral support.
And as the financial meltdown put the country's experiment with market reform at a crossroads, Moscow buzzed with rumours of 67-year-old Yeltsin's impending resignation. This provoked him into making a rare, 11-minute television address to the nation on August 28, a day after people mobbed stores across Moscow in a fit of panic buying and angry depositors laid siege to banks. His ambiguous pronouncements were ominous. When asked how he proposed to bail the economy out of the current mess, the president averted his eyes from the camera and rolled out a vague, ponderous reply.
The only time Russians saw a glimmer of the old truculent Yeltsin was when he was asked if he planned to step down. "First of all, to remove me, that is too difficult a matter. Considering my character, this, I think, is impossible. Impossible," he stressed. "I mean that I am not going anywhere. I am not resigning. I will complete the full term given to me by the Constitution." Then, thoughtful again, he conceded that this would be his last term as president.
Predictably, Yeltsin's interview did little to convince Russians he is in control. Opinion polls indicated his nosediving popularity. This at a time when the people are desperately seeking a hero to get a grip on a nation adrift. "I just keep trying to persuade myself not to say bad things about him. We supported him through all those years. But I can honestly say that I regard him differently now from the way I did in 1991 or 1993. And as for the financial crisis, you can go through black Tuesday or Monday, but now it looks like there is black Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday..." says 32-year-old Yelena Popova, an accountant from Nizhny Novgorod.
"Senile Brezhnev in his last years was a Cicero compared to today's Yeltsin. It looks like he is completely unable to understand what is happening around him and doesn't know what to say about the current crisis," says Leonid Velcknov, a leading political analyst with the Itogi newsweekly.
The crisis was triggered off on August 17 when the government said it would default on some government debts and stop expending currency reserves to keep the rouble from falling. The financial markets went into a tizzy and the rouble, after some years of a semblance of stability, went into free fall. A week later, in an inexplicable fit of musical chairs, Yeltsin fired his five-month-old prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko and recalled his predecessor Viktor Chernomyrdin.
CAPITALISING on the president's dipping authority, the powerful Communistled opposition in the Duma, parliament's lower house, has demanded a return to more government control over the economy and political concessions. Among its demands are renationalisation and printing more currency. In fact, an indication of the rising pro-left sentiment in the country was a leading pro-market newspaper's decision to relegate Clinton to the inside pages and carry a huge photograph of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov on the front page. The Duma has already hammered out a power-sharing proposal, cutting Yeltsin's powers and making the prime minister and parliament the main power centers in the country.
The Duma proposal, drafted in a five-page document, is tantamount to a constitutional coup and requires Yeltsin to cede to the prime minister and parliament his powers to dismiss the government and to appoint and fire cabinet ministers.
The document also requires Yeltsin's agreement to a constitutional amendment barring him from resubmitting a candidate's name more than once for prime minister. Currently, Yeltsin can submit a candidate's name three times; if the Duma rejects the nomination all three times, it is automatically dissolved and new elections have to be called.
The Duma's rejection of Chernomyrdin was far from unexpected; the lower house of parliament has a long tradition of indulging in brinkmanship with the Kremlin before ultimately giving up. But the manner in which Yeltsin's nominee was rejected amidst a spiralling crisis of power in Russia is giving experts reason to conclude that the Duma, convinced that President Yeltsin is weaker than ever before, is this time going for broke in its standoff with the Kremlin.
"Judging from Communist leader Zyuganov's far-reaching statements, his supporters feel they are in a strong position," says Gergei Kokmakov of the Moscow-based Fond Politica, an independent think-tank. "It is clear that the leftist opposition has decided not only to take a little bit of revenge, but to seriously change the situation and perhaps push for the president's resignation."
Analysts in Moscow say the opposition believes that if it holds out, it can wrest some more concessions offered in the power-sharing deal. The opposition could also force Yeltsin to propose a more acceptable candidate, such as Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Some even go so far to hazard that the president may still be forced to resign.
Meanwhile, leading papers devote considerable space to the ongoing mystery of Yeltsin's health and his capacity to govern. On September 3, Moscow's highest-circulated daily published an investigation of Yeltsin's health, claiming he had already suffered five heart attacks. Previously he was suffering from a chronic infection of the middle ear, cirrhosis of the liver, a kidney problem, rapidly progressing angina pectoris and a sleeping disorder related to his heart problem. "With each day, Yeltsin's health is becoming more and more a vital issue," Sergei Solodovnik, a leading research fellow with the Institute of International Relations, says. That is, only less vital than Russia's ailing economy.