THE PERILS OF CATCHING COLD

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Boris Yeltsin just has a cold, says the Kremlin. (Colds are dangerous in Russia. Leonid Brezhnev had a "cold" and it turned out he was gravely ill, addicted to sedatives and barely functional; Konstantin Chernenko had a "cold" and vanished behind Kremlin walls; Yuri Andropov had a "cold" and was dead in weeks.) Well, maybe flu. (Last time Yeltsin admitted to "flu" it was really pneumonia, and he was out of action for two months.) But there's no cause for alarm, officials claimed last week: the President will keep working while he is resting for 10 or 12 days in the sanatorium that is conveniently located next to his suburban residence. This little respiratory infection, they say, is merely the unlucky result of the President's failure to wear a hat during a visit to Sweden.

Maybe. The Kremlin has a credibility problem when it comes to presidential health. The first time officials announced Yeltsin had a head cold, while he was running for re-election in the summer of 1996, it turned out to be a loose synonym for a near fatal heart attack. For the rest of the year, he was prostrate and the country was paralyzed. A multiple-bypass operation in November 1996 seemed to bring a miracle recovery. Then two months later, Yeltsin came down with another "cold"--this time, his aides said, the result of a post-sauna chill. This cold quickly metamorphosed into pneumonia and two more months of anxiety, political stagnation and fruitless discussion about the presidential succession.

At 66, Yeltsin remains the pivotal figure in Russian politics. He rules by arbitrating among competing factions in his own administration and by intimidating the opposition-controlled Duma when necessary. When ill health prevents him from performing these functions, the country stalls in neutral.

Even before aides acknowledged the flu last week, concern was growing about Yeltsin's obvious fatigue and occasionally erratic behavior. The surgeon who operated on him now travels with him but insists that the president's heart is doing well.

Yeltsin's conduct during recent state visits to Sweden and China was at times unnerving. He looked tired. His actions were eccentric. Some of his startling proposals, like deep cuts in strategic missiles and troops, were swiftly explained away as the musings of a statesman. Yet even his own staff fretted over other bizarre pronouncements. During a very successful trip to China, Yeltsin's hosts politely urged him to stay. Impossible, he replied, according to reporters present: "I have food for only two days." A person who works closely with the presidential team feared that polls would start picking up signals that people think, as he put it, "the president can't think straight."

If Yeltsin's illness proves more severe than the Kremlin has admitted, uncertainty about the entire nation's immediate and long-term health will quickly kick in. Voices will be raised calling for the presidential succession to be clarified; at the moment the only mechanism is essentially for the president to declare himself incapable of governing. Yeltsin's closest aides will circle the wagons around him, forward movement in politics and economic change will come to a halt, and the debilitating struggle to succeed Yeltsin will gather force.