Resurfacing after a five-day absence from public view, Mr Yeltsin delivered a two-minute, televised election address during which he looked pale, rigid, drained of emotion and a shadow of the man who had campaigned so vigorously in the build-up to the first round of voting on 16 June.
"I know exactly what to do. I have the strength, will and decisiveness for that. What is needed now is your support. Every vote is decisive," Mr Yeltsin told viewers, readingfrom an autocue. "If you do not vote, that is also a choice, but a choice against Russia."
Provided that the turnout in tomorrow's vote is 60 per cent or more of Russia's 108 million electorate, Mr Yeltsin's campaign team remains confident that he will defeat Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist challenger. Barring an upset, the central questions in Russian politics therefore turn less on the election result than on Mr Yeltsin's ability to survive a four- year term in office and to restore stability to a system of government shaken from top to bottom by the dizzying rise to prominence of his new strongman, Alexander Lebed.
Mr Yeltsin, who is 65, has already passed the life expectancy of the average Russian male, whose enthusiasm for vodka and vulnerability to heart trouble he shares. He achieved his first-round success over Mr Zyuganov by 35 to 32 per cent at the cost of an exhausting campaign schedule that saw him climbing down coalmines, dancing the twist and criss-crossing 11 time zones to rally crowds with a message of uncompromising anti-Communism.
Yet his Kremlin advisers have inadvertently raised doubts about his true condition with a cloud of contradictory statements that recall the attempts in the Eighties to conceal the fatal illnesses of a string of ageing Soviet leaders. His Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, amended the official version of events yesterday by attributing his absence not to a loss of voice but to a cold, yet in his televised comeback appearance Mr Yeltsin sounded neither hoarse nor nasal. It became apparent that something remained amiss when the presidential press service announced the postponement of a meeting in Moscow between Mr Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Moldova. "He's in bad shape. That's quite clear," Mr Zyuganov told reporters before Mr Yeltsin's television address.
The mainly pro-Yeltsin Russian press, radio and television networks, desperate to prevent a Communist victory that could threaten freedom of speech and their staffs' livelihoods, loyally avoided comment on the President's health. However, their failure to touch on such a topical issue intensified the eerie atmosphere of an election campaign in which the incumbent favourite abruptly dropped out of sight just before polling day, and in which the antics of an army general-turned-politician seem as important as tomorrow's voting trends.
Mr Lebed, the general who was appointed to two powerful national security posts after finishing third in the election's first round, has ventured far outside his official area of responsibility with a flurry of contro- versial public statements on the Russian constitution and on economic, cultural and religious policy.
His often illiberal remarks bear the imprint of his soldierly background and appear to have been made without any authorisation or consultation with Mr Yeltsin or his campaign strategists. Not content with denouncing Western cultural influences in Russia and condemning Mormons as "mould and scum", Mr Lebed has also betrayed anti-Semitic tendencies. Responding last week to a nationalist supporter who prefaced a question to him with an apologetic laugh, Mr Lebed said: "You call yourself a Cossack, but your approach is Jewish."
He has demanded more state control of the economy and "punitive nationalisation", proposals that were absent from his first-round campaign and appear to place him ideologically closer to Mr Zyuganov than to Mr Yeltsin. Mr Lebed, who recently expressed pride in the fact that he has never been outside the former Soviet Union, has also called for much tighter control of foreign travel. The former general has even challenged the constitutional system under which Mr Yeltsin has governed Russia since 1993 by calling for the restoration of the vice-presidency, a post he wishes to endow with military decision-making powers.
Unless he is reined in, it seems likely that post-election Russia will witness a ferocious struggle for influence between Mr Lebed and rival elements in the Kremlin, with the stakes all the greater on account of Mr Yeltsin's uncertain health.
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