Primakov eclipses `exhausted' Yeltsin

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MORE THAN halfway through his disastrous second term, an infirm Boris Yeltsin was back in a sanatorium last night while his prime minister - and possible successor - basked in the limelight of a European summit.

Ill and remote, Mr Yeltsin withdrew entirely from the Russian political arena, yesterday, by moving from his residence outside Moscow to a nearby sanatorium, to recover from what Kremlin aides say is a case of exhaustion and high blood pressure.

Such is his condition - which many suspect to be far more serious than mere fatigue - that doctors ordered him to cancel yesterday's one-day trip to Austria for talks with European Union leaders. His premier, Yevgeny Primakov, went in his place, deepening the impression that, despite Mr Yeltsin's mighty constitutional powers, he is now in charge. Much of the political and financial elite are hoping Mr Yeltsin can hang on until his term ends in mid-2000. They do not want an early election as they have yet to find a candidate whom they trust to preserve the status quo - and not to launch prosecutions over the corrupt privatisations upon which their riches are founded.

But their eye has now alighted on the squat frame of Mr Primakov as a compromise "establishment" candidate. The two other leading challengers, the rumbustious mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov and General Alexander Lebed, inspire as much suspicion as support among Russia's elite.

Yet Mr Primakov may have to be dragged to it. At 68, he is one year older than Mr Yeltsin. He is weary after years in politics, including a tough stint as Foreign Minister, and he has health problems of his own.

None of this, however, was evident yesterday during his trip to Vienna, where - hoping to butter up the IMF enough to extract another fat tranche from a stalled $23bn rescue package - he spoke approvingly of the need for Russia to have a "market economy with a social orientation".

The Kremlin has done its best to portray the President as a workaholic, being forced to rest by his doctors. His spokesman, Dmitri Yakushkin, added new details yesterday by saying that Mr Yeltsin cancelled the Austria trip because he feared the consequences of media attention.

"Deep down inside he did not want to take any risks, because he was fairly upset with what he read about himself in the press following his visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan [where he almost keeled over]", he said.

He said the President's stay at the Barvikha sanatorium would depend on his treatment, but he is likely to take a holiday afterwards. Yet again, Russia will have an absentee president. But whether it matters any more is a moot point.