NAINA YELTSIN RARELY GIVES interviews. She is a private person more than a First Lady, and she usually stays in her husband's shadow. But in a post-election appearance on Russian television last week, she might almost have been pouring out her heart to Geraldo. Mrs. Yeltsin confessed that she was worried about her husband's health. ""He never takes time to recover from anything,'' she complained. ""What he really needs is a little bit of rest.'' So was the president planning to take a vacation? ""I don't know,'' she answered. ""He doesn't tell me anything.''
Yeltsin won an emphatic victory in Russia's first free presidential election, a 54-40 thumping of the stodgy communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. Foreigners who had bet heavily on a democratic Russia could finally relax. ""I want to congratulate President Yeltsin on his re-election,'' said Bill Clinton. ""It has a nice ring to it,'' he added with a smile -- gratified, no doubt, that ""Who lost Russia?'' was not going to become an issue in his own re-election campaign. But Yeltsin's come-from-way-behind triumph also marked the start of a new political battle: the struggle to succeed him.
At 65, Yeltsin has already lived seven years longer than the average Russian man, and he has a history of heart trouble and heavy drinking. Illness of some sort -- the Kremlin variously described it as a cold, a sore throat or the flu -- kept him in seclusion the week before the runoff election. When he did appear, in brief, carefully choreographed video events, his face seemed puffy and his manner wooden -- ""a painted mummy,'' sneered one of his communist opponents. Yeltsin perked up a bit after the election. When he arrived at his Kremlin office, he was met by two of his potential successors: Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. ""The president is itching for action, so to speak,'' Chernomyrdin said loyally. A third potential successor clearly had not been invited to the reunion: Aleksandr Lebed, the assertive retired general whose last-minute support helped Yeltsin win.
On the eve of the election, the tough-talking general tried to wedge himself directly into the line of succession, calling for restoration of the defunct vice presidency and leaving no doubt that he wanted the job. ""We need this post and a person who would assume constitutional powers and make political and even military decisions,'' he said. Chernomyrdin replied dismissively: ""I personally do not see any need for this post.'' Lebed hurt his own cause by spouting authoritarian rhetoric. He described himself as a ""semi-democrat'' with little faith in the parliamentary system. ""We used to have a czar; then he was replaced by the general secretary of the Communist Party, and now we have a president,'' he said. ""It all fits our mentality.''
It seems unlikely that Lebed and Chernomyrdin can work together successfully, especially if Yeltsin dies or becomes too sick to referee his discordant regime. The two men are natural political rivals and probably dislike each other as well. Last week Lebed suggested that his national-security portfolio ought to include some economic matters that normally might be Chernomyrdin's responsibility. Asked by reporters if he would accommodate Lebed, the prime minister replied acidly: ""I am not going to shift any powers to anyone.''
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser to President Carter, predicted a period of ""intensive political instability'' in the Kremlin. ""I foresee a showdown between Chernomyrdin and Lebed in the first phase,'' he said, ""followed in perhaps six months by a showdown between Lebed and Yeltsin, if Yeltsin survives that long.'' By winning nearly 15 percent of the vote in the first round of the election, Lebed acquired political clout, which he used to secure his post as Yeltsin's top hand on national-security matters. But now, with the president safely reelected, Chernomyrdin suddenly looked much stronger than he did last month. And a Western diplomat pointed out that the Kremlin is full of political rivals eager to ""eat Lebed alive.'' When it became clear that he had overreached himself, Lebed retreated from his vice presidential proposal, conceding that a constitutional amendment would be required to revive the office. But he insisted: ""New blood is coming into positions of power, and I am an example of that new blood.''
The Russian Constitution makes scant provision for replacing a president. If the chief executive dies, the prime minister takes over and has three months to hold an election. The Constitution is vague on the procedure for determining when a pres ident is too ill to fulfill his duties. The uncertainty makes foreign investors anxious. ""We'd better be concerned now that an orderly succession process is set up,'' says Dirk Damrau, a managing director at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank in Moscow.
As far as outsiders can tell, Yeltsin is not on the brink of either death or incapacity. In fact, some sources in Moscow say he appears to have stopped drinking. Clinton talked to him by telephone after the election and said later that Yeltsin was ""quite animated.'' Clinton told reporters: ""I didn't have to ask him about his health because he sounded so good.'' Then why did Yeltsin go into seclusion? He has a condition known as myocardial ischemia, in which clogged arteries reduce the flow of oxygen to the heart. Persistent rumors say he may need coronary bypass surgery, but U.S. officials are skeptical; they think his heart condition may not be susceptible to a quick fix. And it may not have been his heart that put him out of action this time. In two previous heart episodes, Yeltsin completely dropped out of sight for weeks; last week he was able to tape speeches and appear briefly at a polling place, and once the election was won he went back to the Kremlin.
Gossip in Moscow suggested another possible cause for Yeltsin's indisposition: reaction to a medication -- or possibly to withdrawal from a medication, such as whatever it was that made him so frisky before the first-round vote. The Kremlin denied all the speculation, and if the Clinton admin- istration had any idea what made Yeltsin unwell this time, it wasn't talking.
Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who is writing a biography of Yeltsin, says he ""has a history of almost manic-depressive cycles in his political behavior. He tends to fall apart, mentally and physically, after major triumphs and exertions.'' In effect, Yeltsin won the presidency last month, when he finished first in the initial round and then lured Lebed into his camp. But Yeltsin paid a psychic price for that coup: he had to fire his highhanded bodyguard and beloved crony, Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Korzhakov. The two men are intensely close. Yeltsin is prone to despondency, and he said once that Korzhakov was ""the one to drag me out of that pit.'' Korzhakov is still in the Kremlin, but Naina Yeltsin said that dropping him from his official posts was painful for her husband. ""It was as if something was cut off,'' she said, ""like losing a limb.''
Carrying on without his chum won't be easy. During the campaign, Yeltsin promised that economic reforms would continue in his second term. But with tax revenues down and the budget deficit growing, he will have trouble keeping the extravagant promises he made to people who have been hurt by reform, including pensioners and workers in obsolete industries still owned by the state. And with a strong communist presence in Parlia- ment, he may not be able to promote an aggressive reformist agenda, even if he wants to. Still, the Communist Party may have reached its post-Soviet high-water mark. Most of its supporters are older people, and young Russians increasingly have a stake in the new economy created by reform. As long as Yeltsin sticks to modest objectives, he should be able to survive the soul-stirring crises that surely lie ahead. If only his health holds out for four more years.