Rebel victory ruins Yeltsin's day of pomp

Chechen rebels yesterday ruined Boris Yeltsin's inauguration, savaging his army in Grozny as he made a brief appearance in Moscow to take the presidential oath to protect human rights and the security of Russia.

All that could be said in favour of the ceremony, held inside the Kremlin rather than on the square outside, to save the cost of seeding the rain clouds, was that it was mercifully short.

This was thanks to Mr Yeltsin's new head of administration, Anatoly Chubais, who understood that the rebels' infiltration of Grozny was a propaganda disaster for Russia.

Yesterday, the separatists completed the Kremlin's humiliation by seizing large parts of the city of Grozny and pinning down thousands of federal soldiers with gunfire before pulling back towards evening.

Mr Chubais had been studying records of the last Tsar's coronation in 1896 to get ideas for Mr Yeltsin's inauguration.

The draft text of an election victory ode had been published in the press. "Our proud state, great and glorious, doth rejoice; the whole country is full of strength since the people made their choice," it read.

But this week, plans for a more modest ceremony were announced. The official reason was that the budget could not bear anything lavish. But there was speculation that the Chechen crisis and Mr Yeltsin's precarious health had affected the decision .

The 65-year-old leader, who had not been seen in public since a week before his re-election on 3 July, looked stiff as he walked along a red carpet to a stage in the Kremlin Palace. But he pronounced his oath clearly and stood for 15 minutes while the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexy II, blessed him.

"Thank God," said one Russian as she watched the proceedings on television. "I was afraid that he was going to fall over."

The inauguration ended with a 30-gun salute from an artillery unit on the lawns under the Kremlin wall, as if the country were truly celebrating and no guns were traumatising Grozny.

At a reception for 3,000 guests afterwards, Mr Yeltsin was reported to have been lively, considering the official "colossal weariness" that he is suffering from. Russians have been officially reassured that their leader's heart is not troubling him as it did twice last year.

"He made a toast and gave a speech which was a little less wooden than the oath," one Western guest said.

"Then he had a few glasses of champagne and he looked fairly sprightly when he walked out."

Mr Yeltsin's first act after officially resuming his powers was to ask parliament to confirm his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, for a further term. The State Duma will decide the matter today. Although the President's Communist and nationalist opponents have a majority, they do not appear to be in a mood to rock the boat by rejecting Mr Chernomyrdin.

Thus, the chances are that Mr Yeltsin will be able to go on holiday shortly, leaving Mr Chernomyrdin to deal with Chechnya. But the prospects are not bright for an early resumption of the peace process and many politicians in Moscow now admit there is no alternative to a negotiated settlement.