Resign? Over his dead body

Boris Yeltsin is a hobbled figure on the world stage. He has survived double pneumonia, bronchitis, heart trouble and a bleeding ulcer, yet he is a political corpse, hated at home, a laughing stock abroad. And the vultures are hovering. So why is he hanging on to power?

Fate can be terribly cruel. Just after Boris Yeltsin touched down, returning from King Hussein's funeral, his Ilyushin-96 presidential plane was in a collision. Its wing hit a jet carrying the Italian Prime Minister; reports said later that Rome's man was taxi-ing "contrary to instructions".

Though the damage was slight, it was the final humiliation in an expedition that was fraught with risk from the outset. Looking ill and disoriented, Boris Yeltsin spent less than three hours in Jordan before bolting home, leaving the world even more convinced that his days are numbered. The Russian papers were derisive. "Yeltsin did not make it to the grave but was very close to it," said Moskovski Komsomolets.

Why on earth did he go? His doctors warned against it. He was not particularly close to the King, and was certainly less involved in the Middle East than his Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov - the obvious choice as Russia's representative.

Moreover, his foreign ventures often produce disasters. No Yeltsin obituary will omit his failure to disembark from his plane in Ireland in 1994, or his inebriated attempts to conduct an orchestra in Berlin. As his physical and mental decline has steepened, these episodes have become less comic than sad, and more frequent.

In Sweden in late 1997, he caused astonishment by suggesting that the Japanese and Germans had nuclear weapons; in Uzbekistan last year, he almost keeled over in front of the TV cameras. The following day, in Kazakhstan, he looked astonishingly ashen - a lost, drugged figure who seemed barely able to summon up the mental strength to sign a document. It took him 25 seconds to complete his signature; then he shuffled out, after mumbling angrily about the press telling lies.

So: why did he go to the funeral? The answer is part personality and part politics. It was the desperate act of a leader worried about his diminished status on the world stage. It was also that of a politician badly irked by evidence that another - Mr Primakov - has stealthily taken the reins of power.

Boris Yeltsin cares much about how history will view him. Entwined deep within his complex character is a fear that he will be remembered not as a world statesman, who - in his winning, rough-hewn way - piloted an empire through the agony of collapse, but as someone who failed to grow much beyond his roots as a Siberian party boss, whose actions were primarily determined by an instinct to survive - just like other former party apparatchiki who still control the power and perks across many of Russia's regions.

A year ago, he could have expected better. Reforms and privatisation (although appallingly corrupt) were staggering along. The rouble was stable. Predictions of civil war and revolution had proved wrong. Yeltsin had returned to power in an election which, by post-Soviet standards, was clean-ish (although there were campaign finance violations and grossly biased media coverage). The war in Chechnya remained unforgiven by Russians, but in the West - which generally paid it far too little attention in the first place - it was quickly being forgotten. There was a chance that history would be generous, remembering him as the defiant figure who bravely confronted hardline coup plotters in 1991 from the turret of a tank.

Now, the best of these achievements are in ruins. Tens of thousands of skilled, young, urban Russians, the beginnings of a consumer middle class, are jobless. The rouble is worth a quarter of its value in mid-1998; Russia has - at least for the time being - alienated the international financial community.

The nation's misery is measured by a pulse of individual tragedies: a pensioner who immolated himself on Red Square; rampaging soldiers who slaughter their comrades and themselves with amazing regularity; thieves who cut off the hair of bus passengers to sell it; workers paid not in cash but in loo rolls or canned food; countless children begging on the streets; three girls - not one older than 14 - who, after writing a suicide note, on Monday hurled themselves to their deaths from an eighth-storey window. (Whatever their motives - be they unrequited love or a cult's influence - this horror says much about the alienation of youth, parenthood, and a derelict education system.)

If you explore the wreckage, the charitably minded can still find reasons to give credit to the President. Today's Russians can say and read what they like; and - for the minority with the money - can travel freely. In contrast to the United States, the world's chief sermoniser on human rights, Russia has suspended capital punishment.

Yet this is overshadowed by larger problems. Boris Yeltsin is hated at home - three-quarters of his population want to see him impeached - and regarded with a mixture of pity and dismay abroad. In his twilight years, he can counter this only by resorting to a tactic at which he used to be a maestro - grand, unexpected stunts.

There was a trace of this in St Petersburg last summer when he appeared at the reburial of Nicholas II and his family. But, as the Jordan fiasco proved, his touch has deserted him. He has acquired the air of an ageing actor, long ago stripped of the lead, who keeps blundering out of the wings in the hope of stealing into a spotlight occupied by others.

In reality, Boris Yeltsin's presidency ended five months ago, after he sacked his government (led by the 36-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko) - the second to go within a few months - after it had announced a default of foreign and domestic debts and abandoned the battle to defend the rouble. His final demise came when the State Duma, the lower house, rejected his nomination for prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who had already done the job before - dismally, in the eyes of most Russians. A compromise candidate, Yevgeny Primakov, the Foreign Minister, was ushered in, posing as a loyal servant who was too old (69, a year older than Mr Yeltsin) to have any greater ambitions. Humiliated, the President retired to the shadows, in which he has hidden for much of his second term, wrestling with illness.

Since then Mr Primakov has seized the initiative, steadily securing the status of Russia's "de facto" leader. After a cautious start, his presidential aspirations have grown more blatant. He has assiduously wooed the Duma's powerful Communists, and has courted regional leaders, both key power bases. Allies from his days as foreign intelligence chief have been planted in strategic jobs. At his back stands a government that has little sympathy for the Kremlin or its occupant, but plenty for Soviet methods.

When Mr Primakov first took over the Premier's job, Mr Yeltsin appeared resigned to life in the twilight; his aides conceded that he was no longer governing day to day but was working on constitutional issues. His weekly radio addresses stopped, and his staged appearances on TV grew rarer.

But what he cannot have expected - and clearly resents - is the manner in which Mr Primakov has turned his firepower on the Kremlin itself. The Premier has launched a campaign against the oligarchic Boris Berezovsky, a friend of Mr Yeltsin's influential daughter Tatyana, a man who until recently could make or break a government. Two companies - affiliates of the oil conglomerate Sibneft, and Aeroflot - linked to the tycoon were raided by police amid allegations that he was running a private intelligence-gathering operation which spied on the Kremlin.

Nor was the President amused when Mr Primakov went to parliament flourishing a deal in which Mr Yeltsin would get immunity from prosecution in retirement and an end to the (largely symbolic) impeachment proceedings against him in return for an agreement not to dissolve the legislature or sack the government. The President rejected the offer with warnings that he was not about to give away any of his constitutional powers.

Throughout, Mr Primakov has insisted that he has no desire for the top job. But there is a sense, hard to pinpoint, but palpable, that he is quietly being anointed as the heir to the Kremlin, as the monolithic forces that shape the land - the minerals monopolies, the regional elite, the media - gradually coalesce around him. A transfer of power, a murky process in which the ballot box will play but a minor role, is under way. So much for democracy.

This impression is underscored by most of the other likely contenders for the Kremlin who - for all their shrillness - do not seem ready to do battle. General Alexander Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk, is collapsing beneath the weight of running a vast Siberian region. Russia's democrats - a much-abused term embracing Thatcherite economists, liberal democrats and non-ideological super-rich with fortunes to defend - have proved incapable of unity, and are too widely disliked to have a hope.

It is questionable whether Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communists, and runner-up at the last election, really wants the presidency. He runs the only nationwide political party, and can still expect to muster the support of one in five Russian voters. Yet true power could quickly shatter the coalition of Stalinists, mouth-frothing nationalists and progressive socialists who stand behind him. Given the sums of money at stake in Russia, and the national habit of settling scores with a Kalashnikov, his life would be at risk.

Only one man, the formidable mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, seems genuinely keen to compete for the presidency.

Thus, for now, Boris Yeltsin is tolerated. Critically, this allows him to fulfil one of his goals, again with an eye to history. By completing his term, he takes another step towards ensuring that the constitution - a document that he forced through in a suspect 1993 referendum, and which is still widely ignored - becomes law. It is an issue about which he really seems to care.

For many months, Western TV crews have been on death watch in Moscow, confined to the capital. For months, obituaries have been ready in newspaper offices around the world. Yet, though a political corpse, Boris Yeltsin is not dead yet. He has been under assault from an array of conditions that would floor many another, which - if the Kremlin is to be believed - include double pneumonia, bronchitis, heart trouble, a bleeding ulcer, colds, flu and throat afflictions. But it is not impossible that he will follow the example of another equally accomplished boozer, Winston Churchill, whose heart and health caused his doctor concern from before the start of the war. He died at 91 - a decade after his resignation in 1955, much of which time was spent staring into a coal fire with a rug on his knees.

Sick though he is, Boris Yeltsin could stagger on for a while yet. Certainly, his aides - led now by a former KGB general - are trying to discourage those full-time mourners who have long been wringing their hands at their boss's graveside. This week a senior Kremlin official said that there would be more outings to France, Germany and - perilously, given the distance and conditions - to Africa and Latin America, before his term ends in mid-2000.

Russians, fearful of more embarrassment, will pray that he stays at home. So will the Moscow political establishment, and his sympathisers in the West. But this is a man with a famously perverse nature. Those are just the sort of sentiments that will encourage Boris Yeltsin to make one more Lear-like lurch on to the stage.

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