Moments That Made The Year : Spin doctors and surgeons save the comeback kid

They revived the President, but can he resuscitate Russia, asks Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that 1996 was the year that Boris Yeltsin rose from the dead. One year ago, politically and physically, he seemed a terminally ill patient, whose chance of winning a second stint in the Kremlin were about as remote as the likelihood of his appearance on the centre court at Wimbledon for a game of his beloved tennis.

Yet the new year will dawn to find Mr Yeltsin back in office again, having - as far as we can tell - mended his diseased heart. His biggest blunder, the war in Chechnya, has finally ended (although the republic remains volatile). General Alexander Lebed, the politician who so openly aspired to jump into his shoes, is sidelined.

And many of his other opponents are beginning to look as though they might turn into nothing more lethal than Denis Healey's famous dead sheep. It is too soon to say that the Russian President's comeback is assured, but the very fact that he has survived is nothing short of astonishing.

Cast your mind back, if you will. This time 12 months ago, the Communists had just swept to victory in parliamentary elections. Mr Yeltsin was a remote and ailing figure, being nursed in a sanatorium after his second heart attack of the year. Only one in 10 voters had supported the government- backed party, "Our Home Is Russia".

Body bag after body bag was being flown back from Chechnya, each one a reminder of the awful cost of sending troops into the republic a year earlier for a war that some say has cost as many as 100,000 lives. Economic gloom, cynicism over privatisation, rampant crime, post-imperial depression, and nostalgia for the social safety net of Soviet system, fused together to send Mr Yeltsin's poll ratings plunging to a dismal 5 per cent.

With a presidential election looming in the summer, the odds pointed to a future in which Russia would be governed by the inexperienced Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, whose true political creed was uncertain - it veered from moderate to died-in-the wool nationalist, according to his audience - and whose entourage included some alarmingly regressive elements. The West was worried. So were those who benefited from the collapse of Communism, notably big business.

Yet the Kremlin seemed to be at a loss. At first, Mr Yeltsin tried to steal communist and nationalist clothes, making sacrifices of politicians who were perceived to be pro-western, notably Andrei Kozyrev, the Foreign Minister. The same motive lay behind his wild and bloody efforts to end the Chechen conflict with brute force, a fatal strategy which was so humiliatingly illustrated by the siege at Pervomayskoye when several days of pounding by Russian Grad missiles, helicopter rockets, special forces, and tanks failed to suppress a small force of lightly-armed Chechens who were holed up in the village with scores of hostages. In the end, many of the rebels - including their leader, Salman Raduyev - escaped.

You could argue that Mr Yeltsin was saved by his doctors from an "annus horribilis" that would have made the Queen's famous bad year look like a garden party. A huge role was, of course, played by the surgeons who carried out his quintuple by-pass operation in November - after he finally publicly admitted to the world what we had always suspected: that he had a serious heart condition. But, before that, it was the doctors from the Department of Spin who saved his skin.

As the count-down to the elections began, a team of advisers, headed by Anatoly Chubais and supported by a coterie of Moscow business magnates, set about resurrecting his fortunes. Helped by a national media that was generally willing to sacrifice impartiality to defend its own interests, they lavished millions on a ruthless publicity campaign. Mr Yeltsin was transformed from a tired old man into a whirling dervish, who travelled the length and breadth of the land dispensing (later broken) promises of money and favours.

Mr Yeltsin staged a last-minute clear-out from the Kremlin of the hardline "party of war" - including General Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, and the head of the presidential guard, General Alexander Korzhakov, his close friend. Only days before the election's final round on 3 July, he disappeared from view again, crippled by heart trouble. But by then, the turn-around had been secured.

His return to seclusion precipitated a power struggle which owes its beginnings to one of the strangest twists of the year: the rise and fall of General Alexander Lebed. The ex-paratrooper general was catapulted to power by the Kremlin. When he won an impressive 10.7 million votes, Mr Yeltsin made him national security adviser and secretary of the Security Council in the hope of inheriting his support in the run-off.

It was a short-lived liaison. The general made little secret of his ambition to take over from Mr Yeltsin, whom he began to criticise with increasing openness - particularly when the President was slow to embrace his crucial peace deal with the Chechens. But his main opponent was the President's new chief-of-staff, Anatoly Chubais, who - assisted by an alliance with Tatyana Dyachenko, Mr Yeltsin's daughter - took advantage of the President's illness to carve himself out a position as the country's most powerful official.

In October, General Lebed was fired. The general must now begin anew, building a political party and power base of his own.

As the new year begins, a precarious calm prevails. The prospect that Russia will return to some form of communism has receded sharply in 1996, and may now be dead. But many of the economic and social ailments that made Mr Yeltsin so unpopular a year ago still exist. Nor is 1997 likely to be an easy year.

The agenda makes grim reading: unpaid wages and pensions, a battle to collect taxes from a population that distrusts government, reform of the once-mighty military, attempts to scupper the Chechen elections, resentment over Nato expansion, endemic corruption, organised crime, and more. Mr Yeltsin may have amazed the world with his capacity for survival, but he will need every ounce of strength if he is overcome the problems that lie in wait.

Moscow Correspondent