Russian Leaders, Unite

Who's in charge in the Kremlin? Newly elected President Boris N. Yeltsin is nowhere to be seen, and rumors fly about the 66-year-old's need for heart bypass surgery. Alexander Lebed, the ex-general who heads Yeltsin's National Security Council, is feuding with Russian military commanders over control of the war in Chechnya. Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin is sparring with Lebed over economic policy. And Lebed is saying that Yeltsin's advisers are making policy without the President's real authorization. So strange is the situation that doubts are rising over who really controls Russia's vast nuclear arsenal.

No one should panic just yet. Yeltsin has a reform government in place, and it's moving quickly to tackle urgent problems, such as Russia's huge budget deficit. Only 10 days after his inauguration, Yeltsin signed a raft of decrees that effectively canceled his lavish multibillion-dollar campaign promises. Other decrees are aimed at improving tax collection, cracking down on tax evaders, and scrapping industrial tax exemptions. As a result, the International Monetary Fund is set to release money it had held back from Russia in July.

Most of Russia is on holiday in August. But if Yeltsin doesn't return when the new political season starts in September, he will face pressure to resign in favor of Chernomyrdin. Under the Russian constitution, the Prime Minister becomes head of state temporarily if the President dies or becomes incapacitated. A new presidential election must then be held within three months.

Right now, Russia needs two things: peace in Chechnya and economic reform. Lebed can accomplish one, Chernomyrdin the other. At a time when Russia's elected President is incapacitated, Lebed and Chernomyrdin should not be battling each other for position and power. They owe it to Russia to work together until the lines of authority are clear once again.

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