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Traditional secrecy on Yeltsin's health Official efforts to reassure are clumsy, ineffective


MOSCOW -- The official secrecy and vagueness surrounding the condition of President Boris N. Yeltsin, hospitalized since Thursday because of heart disease, are beginning to have the usual counterproductive effects here.

For all of Russia's semi-democratic trappings, Mr. Yeltsin has followed Russian history in keeping the presidency a regal office, and everyone knows the czar is very ill. His acolytes and retainers are seeing their hero and meal ticket falter, so nerves are jangling, and assurances that all is well sound increasingly hollow.

For the third day, Mr. Yeltsin was allowed no nonfamily visitors. But clumsy efforts at reassurance continue, with claims that government work is unaffected.

The official Rossiskaya Gazeta said yesterday that "the president will recover soon." The president's official paper, Rossikiye Vesti, asserted that "Boris Yeltsin's condition does not cause anxiety."

Mr. Yeltsin's period of rule seems to be drawing to an end, with all its drama and accomplishment, but with the transition to a new, democratic, market-oriented Russia inevitably incomplete.

The system is still fragile, and moods about domestic and foreign policies are increasingly somber, defensive and isolationist. Even as the economy is finally stabilizing, Communists and ultranationalists who promise to undo some of Mr. Yeltsin's reforms are expected to do well in the elections scheduled for Dec. 17.

Mr. Yeltsin vowed to protect the essence of Russia's reforms against a resurgence of Communists and ultranationalists. Under the constitution, with nearly undefeatable veto powers, he could.

But a different president -- Alexander Lebed, say, or Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin -- would make different compromises with those unhappy about the pace and course of stop-and-go reforms.

The sense of Mr. Yeltsin as a bulwark against revisionism has been shaken.

Questions are again being raised about whether he will allow himself the revolutionary act of voluntary retirement, or will pursue the czarist and Communist model of trying to die in office, as the safest place to hide.

Russians afraid of instability may withhold their votes from Communists and ultranationalists in December and may look more favorably on the steady Mr. Chernomyrdin in June, rather than risk an untested figure as president.

Yeltsin aides, however, may move to Yuri Skokov, a quiet bureaucrat with good military and intelligence connections who nearly became prime minister in December 1992.

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