Russia In Crisis: `That old man's got a brain like baby food'

I WAS lounging in the corridor, waiting to go into the steam bath, when a fat lobster-coloured figure in a towel lumbered past, cursing: "That ye, BN Ye."

Ye are the first letters of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin's surname. Ye is also the "f" word in Russian. The bather could find only expletives to express his disgust at the news that the Kremlin leader had again dismissed his government, plunging Russia into new political turmoil.

We gathered round the television set in the anteroom, where bathers of both sexes drink beer or tea between bouts of steam.

"That old man Yeltsin, he's got a brain like baby food," said a woman as we heard how the President had thanked and dismissed Yevgeny Primakov, the man who managed to bring stability to Russia after the crisis of last August.

"Well, good thing I didn't get undressed," I said. "I'd better be heading back to my office."

At which point Borya, the genial bath attendant whom I have know for years, turned to me and said: "You're English, aren't you? If I could only get my hands on those ****s in Nato.

"It's only because of Yeltsin that we're not helping the Serbs. You think you can squeeze the Slavs and go on squeezing. Well, you'll see."

I packed up my things and left, together with a friend. This little scene at the banya spoke volumes.

It showed the strength of feeling among ordinary Russians against their President, who now has only a 2 per cent approval rating in the opinion polls. If it comes to a confrontation between the Kremlin and the Communists and nationalists in the State Duma, there is no doubt that the crowds who once cheered Mr. Yeltsin will follow the red flag.

And it illustrated how seriously the West has alienated Russians by bombing Yugoslavia, a policy that arguably has contributed to destabilising Russia as well as the Balkans.

"It looks bad," said my Russian friend quietly when we were outside the banya. "Politicians in both the East and West take decisions to further their ambitions and none of them cares about the consequences for all the little people in the world."

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