MOSCOW -- In preparation for heart surgery later this month, President Boris N. Yeltsin has handed control over national security to Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the Kremlin said yesterday.
The 65-year-old president signed an order Monday giving Chernomyrdin authority over Russia's so-called "power ministries" of defense, interior, foreign affairs, counterintelligence and federal security during his absence, said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the presidential press secretary.
He added that the nuclear "red button" would stay under the president's control.
It was not clear how long the transfer will last.
Yeltsin's decision was widely viewed as an important step in formalizing a process of power transfer, something that in Soviet times was a secretive Kremlin process the nation knew nothing about.
Yeltsin, who suffered two heart attacks last year, announced last week that he would undergo heart surgery. Speculation here and abroad has been rife as to whether he would pass authority to Chernomyrdin before the surgery. The prime minister is ranked No. 2 under the constitution.
Also, uncertainty about the strength of the president's grip on the nation's controls has fueled speculation about a power struggle in the Kremlin and worried Western leaders, who see Yeltsin as the guarantor of stability for Russia's developing democracy.
Even though Yeltsin has not ordered a full transfer of presidential power, the move is unprecedented in Russia's young and unpracticed democracy. And while Yeltsin's move is considered a positive sign of stability and a significant step in the democratic process, it raises troubling questions about what comes next.
While vague on exactly how presidential powers can be transferred, the Russian Constitution permits a partial transfer of power in instances of the president's temporary incapacity. The constitution does not specify who decides the question of "incapacity."
A Western diplomat commenting on Yeltsin's move to turn authority over to Chernomyrdin observed, "This seems to be just one stage in the transfer of power."
"He has only handed over a part of his power, but it is a major part of his work and it seems to say Yeltsin is not fully engaged in the day-to-day work of the presidency," said the diplomat, suggesting that this could be viewed as prudent behavior in light of the surgery or a revelation that he is in worse shape than previously thought.
On the other hand, said political analyst Andrei Piontkowsky, the partial transfer of power suggests "a stability and a different political and psychological situation in the Kremlin."
He recalled that last fall during Yeltsin's lengthy recuperation from his second heart attack, the president did not make the same partial transfer of power, though doctors recommended it.
Indeed, there was a Kremlin power struggle in which hard-liners counseled him against giving control over the power ministries to Chernomyrdin, a centrist democrat.
The hard-liners have since been fired and liberal democrats obviously have prevailed, persuading Yeltsin to exercise the constitutional clause allowing the transfer, said Piontkowsky.
Also, Yeltsin's decision shows a confidence in Chernomyrdin that Yeltsin clearly did not have during his illness last year when he had a re-election campaign ahead that required him to look strong, controlled and unrivaled within the Kremlin.
By giving Chernomyrdin the added powers, Yeltsin also appears to have handed him an advantage in a Kremlin power struggle that has erupted in recent weeks among the prime minister, national security chief Alexander I. Lebed and chief of staff Anatoly B. Chubais.
Lebed, a popular nationalist and former army general brought into the Yeltsin Kremlin to help the president win re-election in June, has worked out the peace deal in Chechnya. He periodically launches scathing attacks on Kremlin leadership for its policy in the bloody Chechen war. So he has won only grudging approval from them in his remarkably successful dealings with the rebels.
Now Yeltsin has made Lebed answerable to Chernomyrdin, setting the stage for possible Kremlin fireworks. Both men have presidential ambitions and would be the front-runners in an election if Yeltsin were to have to be replaced anytime soon.
Chubais, a liberal market-reform economist, generally has weighed in on the Chernomyrdin side of the equation, keeping power from tipping toward Lebed.
Pub Date: 9/11/96