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Robust Yeltsin must find cure for Russia's ills

Seven months late, Boris Yeltsin in effect began his second term of office yesterday with a televised speech to parliament in which he finally signalled that he is back on active duty as the president of an angry, disorientated, and often lawless nation.

Both his doctors and his Kremlin handlers breathed a sigh of relief after the Russian leader delivered a state-of-the-nation address which will have done much to convince the world that he has - at least, for now - overcome his ill health.

Last night, Russia was awaiting details of a government reshuffle, the second flourish in a comeback that was delayed first by his multiple bypass surgery, and then by an attack of double pneumonia that convinced much of the country's political elite that the Yeltsin era was drawing to a close.

But the 66-year-old president, officially inaugurated last August, demonstrated that those predictions may have been premature. His powers of survival - which helped him weather an armed conflict with parliament, the Chechen war, a near total collapse in his ratings, personal depression, and at least two heart attacks - have yet to be exhausted.

Although Mr Yeltsin seemed to flag slightly towards the end of the 25- minute speech, he spoke clearly and strongly and looked fitter than at any time since rocking and rolling at a pop concert on a whirlwind election campaign last summer, before disappearing from view in late June.

Since then, Mr Yeltsin's popularity has nosedived, driven downwards by public indignation over his broken election promises, unpaid wages and pensions, crime, corruption and general economic despair. A few Russians may have taken comfort yesterday in the knowledge that there is, at last, a working president in the Kremlin. But the content of his speech seems unlikely to have won him many new fans.

It was an unsubtle example of a Communist-era tradition in which the party leader publicly lambasted the apparatchiki on behalf of the abused masses. For Mr Yeltsin, who frequently uses this technique, it was as if the government was not his responsibility.

In a sweeping and bleak indictment, he depicted a country that was stranded midway beneath the derelict Soviet system and a free market economy. He bemoaned Russia's falling production, lack of investment, unpaid wages and pensions, declining living standards, and "corruption at every level of power". Plans for a nation-wide strike on 27 March had his sympathy. "This is an alarm. This is a sign that people are running out of patience." One of his only moments of optimism was a prediction that Russia would see 2 per cent growth this year.

But there was little new in his prescriptions for dealing with these dangerous ailments. These included a crackdown on corruption, tighter budgeting practices, a simplified tax code, and compliance with the widely ignored federal constitution. He talked of introducing "competent and vigorous people" into government, said he was soon planning to take fundamental decisions on the reform of armed forces, which were in an "extremely worrying" state.

His performance was, inevitably, rubbished by Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communists, who characterised his speech as "miserable, helpless buffoonery, without any real content". However, yesterday, it was not the president's words that mattered most.

The fact that he made the speech, in seemingly good health, meant that Mr Yeltsin could at last chalk up a triumph in a country which had begun to compare his rule with the zastoi - stagnation - of the Brezhnev era.

It was certainly a triumph for his handlers, who successfully attracted media attention away from the president's health by systematically leaking bits of his speech earlier this week. And it was a signal that he intends to compete his four year-term, despite the menacing circling of pretenders to his throne.