Rebuff mars Yeltsin's return as fighting man

Boris Yeltsin yesterday took a crucial step in his long-awaited comeback by appearing on Russian television, but his cautious return to the political fray was marred by a rebuff from his troublesome neighbour - the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.

In the 15 days since his coronary bypass operation, the Kremlin has released several still photographs of Mr Yeltsin, but his television performance provided Russians with their first close look at the patient and, far more importantly, a chance to hear him speak.

Enveloped in a large black coat and a fur hat, he looked considerably thinner and older than the burly figure who fought this summer's election campaign, but he spoke with few of the slurs or pauses that punctuated his speech just before the operation. He was also smiling and slightly ruddy-faced.

His heart - the source of so much political uncertainty and personal discomfort - felt quite different, he said, standing next to his wife and granddaughter in the gardens of the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow, where doctors yesterday removed the stitches from his chest.

"Today I have no pain in the heart. I don't feel my heart. It is not like it was before the operation." He was, he added, in "fighting mood".

He will need to be. His groaning in-tray has been piled still taller with the crisis bubbling away in Belarus, on his western border. Russia is by far the most influential player in international efforts to persuade Mr Lukashenko to end his stand-off with parliament over a referendum on the constitution which - if passed next Sunday - would give him autocratic powers.

In a 40-minute telephone conversation yesterday, Mr Yeltsin urged Mr Lukashenko to compromise, but without much evident success. The 42-year- old former Soviet collective farm director failed to attend a Kremlin- organised meeting with his opponents and the heads of Russia's two parliamentary chambers, convened in the hope of finding a settlement.

However, he is expected to meet Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister, later this week.

Yesterday, as tensions remained high in the 10 million-strong nation, both sides were deadlocked.

Mr Lukashenko - who has the support of a 1,500-member presidential guard - was pressing ahead with the referendum, despite reports from Minsk last Tuesday that he was willing to reach a compromise. In what has become an elaborate game of brinkmanship, his camp indicated that he would not call off the poll unless his parliamentary opponents stop moves to impeach him.

But the opposition, led by the parliamentary speaker, Semyon Sharetsky, appears unwilling to do so unless he first scraps the referendum, reinstates the recently sacked head of the country's election commission and opens up the now government-controlled airwaves to parliamentarians.

All this has the potential to turn nasty, not least because of an intriguing detail: if Belarus's constitutional court decides that there are grounds for impeaching Mr Lukashenko, the law states that his powers would be suspended until parliament decides his fate. Whether he would accept this is doubtful. His 28 months in office have provided little evidence that the constitution matters a jot to him. That - his supporters would say - is why he wants a new one.

Leading article, page 19

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