YELTSIN’S DECLINING HEALTH AND INFLUENCE
As Yeltsin began his second term, the strength of the president's political position and the nature of his intentions remained unclear. Yeltsin ended his first term on an ominous note by retreating completely from public view immediately after his election victory. The heart attack that Yeltsin suffered between the two rounds of the election was identified only later as the cause of his disappearance. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Beginning with the first round of the presidential election, Yeltsin's physical condition exerted a growing influence over the political atmosphere in Russia. In the fall of 1996, news of the president's very serious heart condition intensified speculation about the identity of likely successors. As Yeltsin maintained a limited public schedule in that period, three figures, Chernomyrdin, Lebed', and Moscow's very popular mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov, jockeyed openly for advantage in the anticipated post-Yeltsin era--although Chernomyrdin clearly lacked the political appeal of his potential rivals. Those maneuvers continued after Yeltsin's heart surgery in November.*
By early 1997, Russia's apparent lack of leadership caused intense concern and speculation in the international community, and Yeltsin's popularity again plummeted as workers and pensioners remained unpaid. In March 1997, Yeltsin used his annual state of the federation speech to the State Duma to reassure domestic and foreign opinion and to reassert his presidential power--a goal that he achieved by delivering a forceful and coherent speech. Accusing the Government of failing to execute his commands, Yeltsin repeated his unfulfilled 1996 promises of wage and pension payments, accelerated economic reform, and more efficient government.*
Yeltsin's approval ratings were often in the single digits. By the end of his term, most Russians detested Yeltsin and blamed him for most of Russia's problems. Yeltsin easily defeated an impeachment vote against him in May 1999. A two thirds majority was needed. The closet vote, on his handling of Chechnya, was 283 in favor, 218 against. At least 300 votes was needed to impeach him. He survived numerous threats of no confidence votes.
In March 1998, minutes after returning from a week-long absence, Yeltsin fired his entire cabinet, including his loyal prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and controversial English-speaking reformer Anatoly Chubais. Chernomyrdin was given a medal of service and only 30 minutes notice before he was sacked. Yeltsin appointed 35-year-old energy minister Sergei Kiriyenko to be prime minister. Yeltsin said he fired his cabinet because they lacked fresh ideas. Before he announced the move, he ordered telephone lines between key government offices cut off to keep the ministers from preempting the move. Afterwards, Yeltsin surrounded himself with loyal bodyguards.
Over the years Yeltsin survived car crashes, emergency plane landings, severe depression, drunken binges, nose surgery and a mysterious fall of a bridge. He took painkillers for treatment for a bad back that resulted from a hard landing in a helicopter. Market turmoil grew with fears about Yeltsin health and political problems.
Yeltsin also is believed to have had liver and kidney damage from excessive drinking. One prime minister watched Yeltsin down 10 glasses of vodkas or wine in an evening. Yeltsin reportedly had heart trouble since he was 19. As a child he suffered from a disease, which may have been rheumatic fever, which sometimes damages the heart. and was hospitalized with chest pains for several days in November 1987 after his ouster as Moscow Communist Party boss and in April 1990 while traveling Spain. Heart trouble caused him stop working in September 1991 and miss a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister in January 1992.
In 1995, Yeltsin was hospitalized for almost a month with an attack of acute ischemia (a condition that restricts the flow of blood to the heart and sometimes causes the heat muscle to die). Doctors also said he suffered from shortage of oxygen reaching the heart and angina (chest pains that occur when the heart tries and fails to pump enough blood during exercise and times of stress).
Yeltsin had a heart attack in July 1995, which was initially kept secret.. His aides said he had "heart pains" and photo of him working was released. The photos had clearly been doctored. After the 1996 heart attack, he was rushed to the hospital by helicopter. There were "complications" involving his kidneys, lungs and liver. His aides said he had a sore throat. His doctors didn't reveal that had a heart attack until after the July 1996 election. When he was sworn into office in August he spoke for only 45 seconds and appeared for just 16 minutes.
Yeltsin's Heart Operation
Yeltsin had quintuple bypass surgery in November 1996 to deal with blockages in four main coronary arteries that led to his heart and caused an enlargement of his left ventricle. Arteries taken from his chest and leg were connected to the blocked arteries so that blood could bypass the blockages.A few weeks before the operation Yeltsin bagged 40 ducks and a wild boar on a hunting trip. According to a Yeltsin aid he “downed an a 200-kilogram adult boar with the first shot.” He was accompanied by German chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Yeltsin was operated on at the Chavez Center, a cardiological center on the outskirts of Moscow that was regarded as one of the best hospital in Russia but still one where doctors earned $75 a month and sat around in the lobbies smoking cigarettes. Many thought he would be operated on the West. The famous American heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston was one hand for the operation. He had trained the Russia surgeon who performed the operation on Yeltsin. DeBakey examined Yeltsin's kidneys and liver and said there was nothing that suggested Yeltsin was a heavy drinker.
When Yeltsin awoke from his surgery he didn't inquire about his health or ask for his wife or family, he asked for a pen and to issue an order returning power to his hand. His prime minister Chernomyrdin was in charge during his operation.
After Yeltsin's Heart Operation
After the surgery Yeltsin often slurred his words, appeared disorientated, had a short attention span and short-term memory loss. His face looked puffy. He looked labored when he spoke, unsteady on his feet, bloated, and his speeches were punctuated with fumbling pauses and stilted phrasing. He sometimes had trouble reading his speeches on the teleprompter and went off on weird tangents. He was deaf in one ear. At his best he pounded his fists and broke into a silly smile. Some people compared him to Chernenko, the Soviet leader who lasted only a few months in office before e died. After Yeltsin showed a sudden burst of vigor, one journalist wrote, "He looks like he got a new battery."
Yeltsin continued to suffer from health problems. He disappeared for days or weeks at a time and his motorcade was often followed by a rolling hospital nicknamed the catafalque. In October 1998, Yeltsin nearly keeled over during a ceremony on a visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and lost his place in a speech. The following day in Kazakhstan he looked deathly pale and took nearly 25 seconds to place his signature on a document. When he returned home nearly half the members of upper houses endorsed a motion calling for his resignation.
Yeltsin spent two weeks in a sanatorium in December, 1998 recovering from a viral infection and a bleeding ulcer. When he came down with the viral infection, the Russian leader was shown on television riding around in a snow mobile and ice fishing.
Yeltsin's Erratic Behavior
Yeltsin had a reputation for failing to appear for announced public appearances, canceling meetings with world leaders, disappearing for weeks at a time, and being unable to take phone calls from American president Bill Clinton. He showed up drunk for a solemn ceremony marking the departure of Russia soldiers in 1994.
There were frequent reports that Yeltsin was too drunk to function at officials meeting and sometimes had to be hidden from reporters. During a state visit to in Berlin, Yeltsin got drunk on champagne, nearly fell down and grabbed a baton from the conductor of a military band and frenetically led the orchestra himself.
In October 1995, Yeltsin walked into a press conference to announce a meeting with president Clinton and tweaked two secretaries on his way in. One jumped up and turned around with a startled look. They other barely budged. The startled expression of the one who jumped up was caught by photographers. In 1996, Yeltsin was captured on video tape pulling money from his pocket and looking at it “with utter perplexity."
In 1994, Yeltsin was unable to leave his plane at Shannon airport to meet the Irish prime minister, who was left standing on the tarmac with Yeltsin's wife, a regimental band and flower-bearing children. Earlier in the day he drank a lot of champagne at a breakfast with Bill Clinton. Many people speculated he was too drunk to get off or suffered a stroke or a heart attack brought on by the bout of drinking. According to his ex-bodyguard he fell down while walking from his bed to the toilet and his wife and doctor thought he had suffered a heart attack or stroke.
In December 1997, Yeltsin made a series of embarrassing misstatements: He said he was in Finland when he was actually in Sweden and referred to Japan and Germany as nuclear powers when they were not. He also breached protocol by showing up late for a meeting with the Swedish king. On other occasions Yeltsin has confused Norway and Sweden, said that the United States risked starting a "world war" if it bombed Iraq, and said that he talked to pope the previous Tuesday when he actually talked to him seven years before.
Without alerting his aides beforehand, Yeltsin once said, "I am here making public for the first time that we, in a unilateral manner, are reducing by another third the number of nuclear warheads." Yeltsin's aides later backtracked from the statement although in reality the statement reflected what is really happening with the Russian arsenal. After he made the statement, an American diplomat said, "We don't take what he says all that seriously. We have come to learn that lots of times he just says what's on his mind at the moment. And his mind changes rather quickly."
When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Moscow, he was forced to meet Yeltsin at a Moscow clinic. Yeltsin called for a post-summit press conference before the summit meeting even began. In May 1999, after firing Prime Minister Yevegni Primakov, Yeltsin announced that his new choice for prime minister was Nikolai Aksyonenko. An hour or so later he informed the Duma that he made a mistake and meant to nominate Sergei Stepashin.
Yeltsin's Family and Advisors
In the beginning of his first term as president, Yeltsin's closest advisories were his longtime bodyguard and drinking buddy Alexander Korzhakov and his tennis coach. During his second term, it was widely believed that Russia was run not by Yeltsin himself but rather by a group known as the "family" that included Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko (39 in 1999), former chiefs of staff Anatoly Chubais, Alexander Voloshin, and Valentin Yumashev (a former journalist ghostwriter of Yeltsin's memoirs) and the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.
Tatyana played an important role behind the scenes. Regarded as calm and rational, almost the opposite of her father, she was Yeltsin's coach, campaign manager, confidant, dresser, handler and nurse. She is credited with helping him get re-elected in 1996 and nursing him back to health after his heart surgery. In July 1997, she was formally hired as an advisor. One of her duties it seemed was to keep her father from drinking too much and embarrassing himself.
Towards the end of Yeltsin's term she became increasingly powerful and influential, mainly by controlling access to her father. She is believed to have been involved in orchestrating the sacking of his prime minister and cabinet in the spring of 1998. She once told an interviewer, "there are some unpleasant things the president needs to be told that are better said by me.
Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a star on Yeltsin's economic team, was voted man of the year in 1997. A former governor of Nizny Novgorod, his star flamed briefly. During the political crisis in August 1998 he was sacked. Later when asked about Yeltsin's decision-making processed he said, "It s hard to explain madness."
Yeltsin's Prime Ministers
Yeltsin went through seven prime ministers in eight years. Yegor Gaider was prime minister in 1991 and 1992. He was fired in December 1992 and replaced with Victor Chernomyrdin (December 1992 to March 1998). In 1998 and 1999, five prime ministers served under Moscow in 17 months: 1) Chernomyrdin (fired in March 1998). 2)Sergei Kiriyenko (March 1998 to August 1998). 3) Yevgeni Primavik (September 1998 to May 1999). 4) Sergei Stepashin (May 1999 to August 1999) and finally 5) Vladimir Putin (August 1999 to Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999). The prime minister were usually fired for being too ambitious or to take the fall for a bad event.
Sergei Kiriyenko was Prime Minister for four months in 1998. Resembling a baby-faced school teacher, he was a native of Abkhazia in Georgia, a former Communist Youth League member and former bank and oil company executive in Nizhny Novgorod. A protege of Deputy prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, he served as fuel and energy minister and he handled a crisis in the Far east. He became prime minister at the age of 35 and was shown on television at home boxing with a bunching bag. The scapegoat for the collapse of the Russian economy, he was fired in August 1998. He said, "I believe this is a bigger surprise to me than it is to you all."
In September 1998, Yeltsin appointed Yevegni Primakov as prime minister. He was regarded as reasonable compromise during a period of economic upheaval. His appointment made politicians in the West nervous but Russians liked him because he was not under the influence of the oligarchs. Of Jewish descent, Primakov was born Yona Finelstein in Kiev in 1929 and brought up in Georgia. He never knew his father who was killed in the Stalin purges. His first wife and son died tragically and suddenly. He married again, with a doctor. A Middle eastern specialists, fluent in Arabic, he was a former KGB spy master and friend of Saddam Hussein (who he called a moderate) and Myanmar Gaddafi. He was an outspoken critic of "American hegemony" and served as an advisor for Brezhnev, an ally of Gorbachev and a member of the Politburo. Primakov was officially dismissed because of the slow pace of reforms but in reality it was because he had grown to independent and ambitious and even talked back to and interrupted Yeltsin.
Stepashin was regarded as yes man and Yeltsin loyalist. He lasted only 82 days in office. Close o tears after he was sacked, he said, "I was, am, and always will be with him."
Viktor Chernomyrdin was prime minster twice (from December 1992 to July 1996 and August 1996 to March 1998). A former member of the Communist elite, he rose through the ranks to become the Minister of Oil and Gas and turned the ministry into Gazprom. He was regarded as tough, pragmatic, loyal, ineffectual and no great friend of the West.
Chernomyrdin, who had been appointed prime minister in late 1992 to appease antireform factions, established a generally smooth working relationship with Yeltsin. Chernomyrdin proved adept at conciliating hostile domestic factions and at presenting a positive image of Russia in negotiations with other nations. However, as Yeltsin's standing with public opinion plummeted in 1995, Chernomyrdin became one of many Government officials who received public blame from the president for failures in the Yeltsin administration. As part of his presidential campaign, Yeltsin threatened to replace the Chernomyrdin Government if it failed to address pressing social welfare problems in Russia. After the mid-1996 presidential election, however, Yeltsin announced that he would nominate Chernomyrdin to head the new Government.
In 1998, Chernomyrdin was suddenly fired, along with Yeltsin’s entire cabinet. Before the firing it appeared that Yeltsin was grooming him to be his successor. Yeltsin said he dismissed him so he could "concentrate on political preparations for the presidential election." Chernomyrdin was largely regarded as lacking in charisma. Chernomyrdin once reportedly used $500,000 of state money to pay for a helicopter bear hunting trip in which in the remote Yaroslavl area and bagged two cubs. The trip was so expensive because a helicopter pad and two kilometers of new road were built.
Yeltsin and Corruption
Yeltsin's daughters, Yelana Okulova and Tatyana Dyachenko, reportedly received kickbacks and other favors and payments. Yeltsin fired his corruption fighter Yuri Boldyrev when he began investigating people close to Yeltsin. In September 1999, Yeltsin's wife Naina defended her husband and family in an emotional television interview. "You know we do not have any villas abroad or castles or yachts. We do not have them. So why should you get upset about all this."
The most damning accusations were connected to the so-called Mabatex Affair. Yeltsin and his daughters and their husbands received kickbacks from Mabetex Project Engineering, a Swiss-based firm that received $300 million in government contracts to refurbish buildings in Moscow. Criminal charges connected with the case were filed by a Swiss court.
Mabatex reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills for Yeltsin and his two daughters and provided $1 million to a Hungarian account for Yeltsin's benefit. Yeltsin reportedly was given an America Express card and his daughters Eurocards. Yeltsin reportedly used his credit card only for some small purchases while his daughters made $600,000 in purchases. Yelena’s husband businessman Valery Okulov had $2.7 million a Bank of New York account in the Cayman Island frozen in connection with the case.
Yeltsin Names Putin a Prime Minister and Then President
On August 9, 1999, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin after the sacking his predecessor Sergei Stepashin. Some say Putin was selected by Yeltsin because of his connections to the FSB (KGB) and ability to protect Yeltsin after he left office (Putin’s first decree was to grant Yeltsin and his family immunity from any future prosecution).
Yeltsin insiders described Putin as “shy and withdrawn” but “loyal and faithful.” Yeltsin’s people admired how he stood beside Sobchak. He won a seat in the Duma as a member of Yeltsin's Unity Party in the elections in December 1999. His popularity rating was only 2 percent. Putin was put in charge of the war of the Chechnya. After the bombing of apartments on Moscow, he authorized a major offensive. "We will pursue them everywhere. If, pardon me, we catch them in the toilet, we'll rub them out right there." Russians like that kind of talk.
Backed by the oligarch (tycoon) Boris Berezovsky, the Yeltsin team set about making Putin into a credible successor in an exercise referred by some as “Project Putin.” Putin was taught to dress and talk like a president and carry himself in a dignified way in public. “He was a fast learner,” one of Yeltsin’s aides told the Washington Post. Berezvosky’s television station showered Putin with praise while it ripped apart his rivals.
Putin became president after Yeltsin resigned on December 31st, 1999. The plan was to boost Putin’s standing so he would be well positioned to win the presidential election. When Yeltsin told Putin he going to appoint him as “acting president,” according to Yeltsin’s memoir, the 45-year-old Putin replied, “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure whether I’m prepared for this, whether I want it, because it is a rather difficult life.”
Putin won the election in March 2000 with 52.5 percent of the votes. His closest rival, Communist Gennaday Zyuganov, took 29.5 percent of the vote. In third was Girgory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko Party with 6 percent. Putin managed to avoid a run off but the margin of victory was less than predicted. There were allegations of voter fraud. During the campaign Putin flew into a war zone in Chechnya in the navigator's seat of a fighter and gave out hunting knives to Russian soldiers. The idea was to show that he able, fearless leader.
Yeltsin Resignation and Retirement
In his last months in office, Yeltsin's approval rating shrunk to as low three percent. Yeltsin formed the co-called Unity Party, which did surprisingly well in election the fall 1999 elections, perhaps because of the favorable coverage Unity party candidates got on media controlled by Yeltsin-friendly oligarchs.
On December 31, 1999, a pale and tired-looking Yeltsin appeared on television and announced his resignation and said new elections for president would be held in March, 2000. The news caught everyone by surprise. He was 68. Sitting in front of Christmas tree, Yeltsin was sad, contrite and emotional. He began by saying "I am addressing you for the last time as Russian president" and later said "I want to ask for forgiveness because many of our hopes have not come true."
Yeltsin named Putin as his successor, effective immediately. He gave Putin the nuclear suitcase and handed him medals and a pen, symbolizing presidential authority, while Russia's Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II looked on. It widely believed that a deal was made for Putin to provide Yeltsin with immunity from any prosecution.
Yeltsin's retirement marked one of the first times in Russian history that a leader exited voluntarily. The constitution limits the Russian president to two four year terms but Yeltsin had said the first term didn't count because he had been elected before the constitution was introduced. His last words as President to Putin were “Take care of Russia.” A few days after he retired Yeltsin took a trip to the Holy Land. He marked the first Orthodox Christmas of the new millennium in Bethlehem and burst into tears when he met Yasser Arafat.
After retiring Yeltsin mainly secluded himself in his secluded dacha outside of Moscow. It was the same one he used when he was President. He was given a retirement stipend of $400 a month, 75 percent of his presidential salary. Putin made sure he was also given a package of cars, security, and drivers. After he retired he started swimming regularly and cut down on his drinking. Some said he looked much healthier than he did when he was President. He reportedly like to sit around and complain about Putin to anyone who would listen.
After Yeltsin's retirement there was a an outpouring of sympathy and affection for him. One woman told the Washington Post, "poor darling, they've always had it in for him.' A man said, "He's always been one of us—a muzhik, a real Russian." People were touched that he apologized for not living up to expectations. In a 2001 poll, 24 percent of Russians blamed Yeltsin for their troubles. Gorbachev blamed the break-up of the Soviet Union on Yeltsin and said he should have resigned after blasting the Parliament building.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016