The hospitalization of Boris N. Yeltsin with "acute" heart troubles forces everyone to think about the day when he is no longer in power.
As Russia's first post-Soviet president, Mr. Yeltsin has had an unenviably hard task. He has had both successes and failures. Many of his instincts have been good, even though his behavior has often been erratic.
In his hard drinking and impulsiveness he is a true son of Russia, whose lifestyle recalls Alexei Tolstoy's adage: "When you love, love with passion; when you threaten, threaten with intention; when you insult, insult only in anger; when you strike, strike with all you've got; when you quarrel, quarrel with courage; when you punish, punish with a reason; when you forgive, forgive with all your heart, when you party, party through the night."
No sooner had Mr. Yeltsin ascended to the Kremlin throne then all kinds of speculation started about his eventual successor. Virtually all of the men once seen as his rivals have self-destructed in Russia's hard-fought political battles. The one exception is Viktor Chernomyrdin, a former boss of the gas and oil industry who has served as the prime minister since December 1992.
Many in the West initially viewed this 57-year-old technocrat with suspicion. But what Mr. Chernomyrdin may lack in charisma, he possesses in administrative and negotiating skills. This was proven during the hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk, where he defused an explosive situation.
Mr. Chernomyrdin's economic pragmatism is another strength. At a time when many economic reformers from academia have failed because they are hopelessly impractical politicians, Mr. Chernomyrdin proved he knows the complexities of Russia's economic behemoth and knows how to begin to modernize it gradually.
Many Russians would prefer a charismatic hothead as their leader. Fortunately, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's popularity has peaked and former Gen. Alexander Lebed is an unproven political quantity. While a dozen or more candidates may aspire to succeed Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Chernomyrdin offers the best hope for Russia's future.
Vice President Al Gore wisely decided early on that Mr. Chernomyrdin was a man the U.S. could do business with. The two have developed a degree of mutual trust. While U.S. and Russian interests do not always coincide, it is important for the two nuclear powers to talk a language they both understand.