Heart surgeon says Yeltsin is no alcoholic

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Michael De Bakey, the Texas heart surgeon who monitored Boris Yeltsin's bypass operation this week, said yesterday he had also examined his liver and could refute the widely-held view that the Kremlin leader was a heavy drinker. "He is not an alcoholic," Dr De Bakey declared.

His remarks came in the latest update on the condition of the 65-year- old President, who yesterday took his first steps after undergoing a quintuple heart bypass on Tuesday. Surgeons said he was recovering well and would probably move from intensive care to an ordinary hospital ward today. While displaying unprecedented "glasnost" about the health of a Kremlin leader, Doctors are coy on the subject of whether over-indulgence in vodka contributed to Mr Yeltsin's problems. But as a foreigner, Dr De Bakey, 88, evidently felt no need to censor himself.

Mr Yeltsin's liver and kidneys did not look like those of someone who abused alcohol, he said. As he resumed normal life, the President would be able to enjoy a drink. "Hopefully, he'll moderate any excesses he may have had. But I wouldn't expect an occasional experience of that kind to have an effect on his heart."

However, ordinary Russians may be sceptical about Dr De Bakey's comments. "There's a fine line between alcoholism and the broad Russian character," said one Muscovite, on hearing the news.

Even if he can drink sometimes, the President will have to cut down on salami, a Russian favourite, as he has been put on a low-fat diet for the rest of his life. Dr De Bakey warned against letting unhealthy eating habits creep back in. Patients, he said, "start off doing pretty well, and then they feel better and become more normal, and the next thing you know they are acting like ordinary people".

If Mr Yeltsin gives doctors cause for concern in the immediate future, however, it is more likely to be over his insistence on resuming work as fast as possible rather than over his dietary disobiedence. With political infighting threatening to break out again at the first sign of weakness from Mr Yeltsin and restiveness among millions of workers who have not received their wages for months, the President is under enormous pressure to show that he is once more in charge.

Yesterday he sent a message to Russians from his hospital bed, saying he was back at work. To prove it, he marked the 79th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution by decreeing that 7 November will remain a public holiday, but henceforth be known as the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. "People are still divided into Reds and Whites, us and them," he said. "It is time to turn the page. Russia is indivisible and we must be together."

His appeal cut little ice with Communist opponents who, prevented from marching across Red Square as in Soviet times, gathered instead near the Bolshoi Theatre to air their economic grievances. Their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, said the 23-hour transfer of power to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on the day of the President's operation had made Russians "a laughing stock in the eyes of the world".