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Yeltsin invents his own plan of checks, balances

In his own perverse way, Boris Yeltsin has perfected the art of checks and balances that are more formally and seriously enshrined in the American Constitution.

One day he underlines the power of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the big-business reformer in Russia's government.

On the next, he encourages former Gen. Alexander Lebed, his hard-line law and order security adviser who doubts both the pace of reform and democracy.

The next day he fires a hard-liner as his chief of staff and replaces him with none other than Anatoly Chubais, the apostle of privatization who is one of the most popular Russian leaders outside the country and possibly the most unpopular inside.

Still the next, he appoints Lebed's candidate, Gen. Igor Rodionov, the "Butcher of Tblisi," as defense minister.

Yeltsin thereby confirms himself not only as Russia's president but master of the complex game whose goal it is to choose who will eventually replace him.

In the meantime, each checks and balances the other.

We were reminded of a wild card when Yeltsin, at the last minute last week, suddenly postponed a meeting with Vice President Al Gore.

While they met the next day, it was another sign of either the mortality or flakiness that make him unpredictable.

He is the hope of both Russian democracy and economic reform, yes.

He has, in the end, consistently come through, certainly.

But he has also taken ugly detours like the war in Chechnya and the storming of the Russian Parliament by force.

And he sometimes disappears when he is needed. He seems to hover between political bumbling and genius, which may even be proof of the latter.

Above all, he's a sick man.

Writing about the recent Russian elections in advance, I said that the outcome might be more important than that ofthe November contest between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

And so it might well have been had the Communists won. Even with Yeltsin's victory, we realize the uncertainty of Russia's future, which still hangs over the world more ominously than does the change of office in any Western democracy.

It says here in the news story I'm reading that Radovan Karadzic has finally resigned from all his posts both in the government of the rump Bosnian Republika Srpska and its ruling Serbian Democratic Party.

U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke reports that Karadzic has faxed him confirmation, which more or less came from 10 hours of conversations Holbrooke had with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

It came just in time for campaigning to get under way in all parts of Bosnia for its future leadership, elections scheduled for September by the Dayton peace accords, which were also the work of Holbrooke.

We hope it's so, but Karadzic has dodged so many silver bullets with his name on them that, election results or not, he may just be able to again, outwaiting the presence of American and other NATO troops in Bosnia before resuming his old ways.

The other side of the Holbrooke-Milosevic talks is that the Serbian president did not agree to deliver Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague that has charged them with genocide and other crimes.

Mladic seems to enjoy the protection of the former Yugoslav army. And delivering Karadzic might endanger Milosevic himself, both at home politically and legally before the tribunal which so far lacks the evidence to indict him.

Watch out for Karadzic as long as he's not locked up.

All the above was, of course, overshadowed by Wednesday night's explosion of TWA Flight 800. It's a sign of our times that almost everybody's first thought was that it was the work of terrorists which may indeed be the case.

A misplaced radio, one that usually wakes me every morning, was the chink in my routine that allowed the news to avoid me until early afternoon Thursday when most of France was already in shock and mourning.

Not only were 42 of the 230 victims French. The plane was also bound for Paris, where the French are still actively after the terrorists who put bomb on a French DC-10 that exploded with a loss of 170 lives on Sept. 19, 1989.

My column that you didn't read on Friday morning, mostly written before the crash, began: "This is the time to visit Paris when most of the Parisians have left, etc. etc."

"Uh-uh, not tomorrow morning," said my faithful editor of many years when she read it in St. Petersburg Thursday afternoon. Again she saved me. You can now read it, suitably rephrased, on Monday.