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Yeltsin's instability

Russian President Boris Yeltsin should take care not to interfere with upcoming Russian elections and understand that doing so would have grave consequences for his country's relationship with the U.S.

The Boris Yeltsin who once was the hero of Russian democracy no longer exists. Sometime between 1991, when he almost single-handedly faced down an attempted Communist coup, and this week, when he dumped his fourth prime minister in 17 months, that Yeltsin disappeared.

Today, the doddering shell of that former Yeltsin is painful to observe. His physical ailments are obvious, and his mental and emotional instability is becoming impossible to ignore. Even more troubling is the growing sense that his desperate attempts to reassert himself could destroy the very democratic institutions he once risked his life to preserve.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December, and the election of a president to replace Yeltsin is scheduled for next summer. Russia desperately needs more competent, popular and representative leadership if it is to have any chance of coming to grips with its crumbling economy, rebellions in Chechnya and Dagestan and other crises. If Yeltsin's increasingly arbitrary actions compromise the integrity of those elections, or cause them to be postponed, the consequences for Russia and the world could be disastrous.

No one was particularly surprised that Yeltsin replaced one colorless bureaucrat (Sergei Stepashin) with another (Vladimir Putin). After all, Yeltsin sacks prime ministers and Cabinets more often than most people change their car's oil. However, the timing of Stepashin's ouster was especially ominous. Only days before, two of the most influential blocs of Yeltsin opponents formed an electoral alliance. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a prominent Yeltsin nemesis, emerged with a broader coalition of support. Yevgeni Primakov, the most popular and powerful of Yeltsin's many former prime ministers, signaled that he may join the new alliance, too.

In that context, the replacement of Stepashin with Putin was seen as Yeltsin's last-gasp attempt to avoid irrelevancy and anoint an heir apparent. However, no one aside from Yeltsin seems to think Putin (or any other hand-picked Yeltsin candidate) would be taken seriously in a presidential campaign against candidates of Luzhkov's or Primakov's stature.

Many Russians fear that Yeltsin will react even more drastically once he realizes that neither he nor his surrogate of the month has any hope of being a serious player in the upcoming elections. In all of Russia's turbulent history, no leader has relinquished power through a constitutional transition.

Yeltsin's government generally has worked cooperatively with Washington, but Yeltsin should have no illusions about U.S. priorities. Beyond the fate of any man, our government's interests are best served by the development of stable, democratic institutions in Russia.

Yeltsin and his shrinking band of allies should understand that any effort on their part to subvert Russia's coming elections would have grave consequences for the future of Moscow's relations with Washington.