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Robotic Yeltsin raises fears he is losing the plot

TECHNICALLY, he did not put a foot wrong. He acknowledged Russia's economic and social problems, hailed its slender victories, and charted a glorious, so far elusive, path to growth. There was a swipe at the US over Iraq, and a jab at his parliament over the budget.

But the content of Boris Yeltsin's now customary annual "state of the nation" address is only half of the story. Just as the world used to watch Ronald Reagan's public appearances for his gaffes, it now scrutinises Mr Yeltsin's performances for clues to his state of health.

For 30 minutes the Russian President spoke in a normal and more or less clear voice to a joint session of both houses of parliament in the Kremlin. His handlers were confident enough to allow his speech to be televised live, knowing that one stammer, one slur, is enough to yield alarmist headlines and with them nervousness among international investors and in the markets.

Yet, although he survived unscathed, yesterday's lacklustre and robotic speech was far from triumphant, despite his claims that Russia is on course for its first growth since reforms began in 1992. Rather, it was a reminder that Boris Yeltsin is a faded figure, very different from the obsessive, flamboyant iconoclast and workaholic who ousted Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

Moscow - a city which makes up for the lack of meaningful politics by ceaselessly speculating about who will be the country's next all-powerful president - has long been debating the possibility that Mr Yeltsin will seek a third term.

But it looks about as likely as Russia beating Australia at cricket. "I find it difficult to imagine Yeltsin running again," said Dmitri Trenin, a leading political analyst, "Nor am I sure that the Russian voters would allow him, to."

Russia now appears to be used to the notion that Mr Yeltsin is not on his death-bed, despite the persistent scares about his health (although two ambulances accompanied him everywhere on his last foreign outing). Some observers still privately insist that he is barely more alive than the embalmed body of Lenin in Red Square, but most acknowledge that his doctors were probably telling the truth when they said his quintuple coronary bypass in 1996 was a success.

The issue has shifted to more mundane territory. His is a gradual decline, compared with Brezhnev's later years. The difference is that Brezhnev presided over a static stagnant system; Mr Yeltsin heads one in fast- fluctuating transition.

Although relatively youthful by Western standards - he has just turned 67 - Mr Yeltsin has long been an old man in Russian terms, having lived nine years longer than the average male. Power, politics and his own destructive personality have weathered even this tough Siberian. Every now and then, the world gets awkward and unhappy glimpses of the aging process. In Italy last week, he became muddled when answering reporters' questions and made a few minor blunders of protocol.

His occasional eccentric outbursts - for example, his claim in Rome that the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, had already agreed to go to Iraq, or his announcement that he "loves Italian women" - can be attributed to a tendency to overact in the international limelight. But the slips and moments of confusion denote an old man who, every now and then, loses the thread.

There was only one flash of the pugilistic, passionate Yeltsin during yesterday's performance. After he ended his speech, the hell-raising nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, freshly returned from a farcical trip to Baghdad, began to hector him from the floor about the Iraq crisis. "There is not a single person in this who has involved himself more in Iraq than I have," replied an angry Mr Yeltsin, who was later due to meet the Chinese premier, Li Peng. But it was not enough to be truly convincing.