Aides to Boris Yeltsin yesterday struck a distinctly cautious note over his medical condition, raising fears that the Russian President's heart ailment is worse than they originally admitted, and strengthening doubts about his ability to remain in the Kremlin's top job for much longer.
His staff confirmed that he will not be hosting a conference in Moscow next Tuesday between the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia - delivering a blow to his plans to use the summit to bolster his flagging popularity at home and his international standing.
Mr Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergei Medvedev, said the 64-year-old president would be under close medical supervision for more than five weeks, further damaging his chances of working behind the scenes to support moderate pro-reform candidates in December's parliamentary elections. But he said the Russian leader, who is in hospital after his second bout of heart trouble in less than four months, had not at any point lost consciousness, and was under "active but not intensive therapy". He was being visited only by doctors, guards and members of his family.
Although he will probably be out of action for some time, the Kremlin continued to emphasise that Mr Yeltsin was still in charge. Mr Medvedev accused his political enemies of trying to exploit his illness, adding: "This is not just speculation. I have already observed it, but Yeltsin's boxer's instincts will come to the fore." He also revealed that Mr Yeltsin has the suitcase containing the so-called nuclear-launch button with him.
The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who under the Russian constitution would take over until an election was held if Mr Yeltsin was incapacitated, was deliberately nonchalant when accosted on his way to a routine economic conference. "He's okay, he's okay, he's okay," he said, under siege from the media.
Mr Yeltsin was taken by helicopter on Thursday from a country residence to Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital, two days after arriving home from a gruelling four-day trip to France and the United States. Aides said he was exhausted towards the end of his trip, and had suffered a recurrence of the heart ailment, ischaemia.
Reporters were not invited to see his return home, spawning yet another conspiracy theory about the real state of his health, which the Kremlin has sought to cover up in the past - along with evidence of his heavy drinking. The popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, which has a reputation for sensationalism, yesterday noted that television viewers were shown a picture of a cheerful Mr Yeltsin emerging from a plane and setting foot on wet tarmac. "It wasn't raining that day, either in Moscow or the Moscow region," said the paper, "maybe it was just a little local rain at the airport."
Another conspiracy theory was launched yesterday by the ultra-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who announced, in a typically outrageous remark, that enemy spies were responsible for Mr Yeltsin's relapse. "These are the intrigues of the foreign special intelligence services," he said, "Clinton needs a victory in the next election and if Yeltsin stays president of Russia, Clinton will lose the election. This is the dirty world of politics when people are killed so that another man on the other side of the world could again become a president."
But on the streets of Moscow, news of Mr Yeltsin's condition continued to be greeted by widespread indifference. Grigory Livshits, a former engineer who now drives a taxi, said he would feel sorry if he died - but added: "I wouldn't be voting for him again anyway."