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As Chechen Crisis Mounts, Yeltsin Is Hospitalized With Pneumonia

By Maura Reynolds
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

For the third time in three years, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was rushed to the hospital Monday with pneumonia -- a serious illness that set in during a period of political uncertainty.

The illness, announced by presidential spokesman Dmitri D. Yakushkin, apparently was triggered in part by Yeltsin’s trip earlier this month to a summit with world leaders in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was roundly criticized for Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya.

It also comes as Russia enters what is expected to be the most difficult stage of its operation to regain control over the separatist republic, and as Western criticism of the war mounts.

Yakushkin announced four days ago that Yeltsin had fallen ill with bronchitis, blaming it on the climate change between Istanbul and Moscow. He insisted that the illness was minor, saying the 68-year-old leader was being treated at home by family members with traditional Russian remedies -- milk, honey and fruit preserves.

However, Yeltsin apparently took a turn for the worse, and doctors concluded that his bronchitis had deepened into pneumonia, Yakushkin said. He added that the president was expected to be hospitalized for about a week.

This is Yeltsin’s third case of pneumonia, his fourth hospitalization this year and his 10th serious illness since being re-elected in 1996. After undergoing quintuple bypass surgery later that year, he has frequently suffered respiratory infections and once each winter has come down with pneumonia.

For the most part, the president’s illnesses no longer raise eyebrows in Russia. However, parliamentary elections are less than three weeks away, a vote that is widely seen as a kind of primary for the race to replace Yeltsin as president in June. The country’s political climate is increasingly feverish, and the president’s latest illness has reignited speculation that he is incapacitated or that aides may try to seize power.

Most analysts discount such rumors, noting that similar cycles of speculation have come to nought. “He has been hospitalized with the same problem before, and it never had any serious impact on either the political or economic situation in the country,” said Liliya F. Shevtsova, a political analyst.