Rumour mill proves true as health charade is called off

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The Independent Online
Few rumours can have been so persistently published, and so repeatedly denied. For weeks reports have circulated that Boris Yeltsin is again suffering from heart disease. And for weeks his aides have ducked and dived, saying he was beavering away at his papers and suffering from nothing more sinister than extreme weariness. Every now and then, he was paraded, briefly and woodenly, on television.

Yesterday, the charade was finally called off. Mr Yeltsin's announcement that he needs heart surgery confirmed what the rest of the world has long suspected - that Russia has just re-elected a sick man as president, one who is unlikely to be in a position to govern for months to come.

His admission was unprecedented in a country whose previous leaders were generally about as willing to reveal their ailments as they were to discuss their nuclear secrets. "I want to have a society based on truth here," he told a television interviewer. "That means no longer hiding what we used to hide."

Medical checks had established "something wrong" with his heart; he was given the choice of an operation or to carry on working, "passively". He chose the former, and will be operated on in Moscow at the end of the month. The main surprise was not what he was saying, but that he was at last coming clean.

The first sign that he was in trouble came after the first round of the presidential election in June. For weeks, he had fought a high-octane campaign, racing around the country trying to win a second term.

His handlers fought hard to convince Russia that he was in fine fettle, despite his record of heart problems and drinking, and his age - 65. Choreographed stunts were laid on for the television cameras; he was shown dancing a country jig, rocking at a pop concert, going down an Arctic coal mine.

The strategy worked, even though Mr Yeltsin's health had clearly broken down by the election's second and final round on 3 July. Five days earlier he suddenly disappeared from view, cancelling final campaign appearances because of what his aides, ludicrously, claimed was a "sore throat".

The mass media, which was overwhelmingly pro-Yeltsin, made little mention of his illness because of the risk that it would jeopardise his chances. But when he appeared on television two days before the poll he looked decidedly unwell. On election day, he chose to cast his vote at a country retreat.

In the two-and-a-half months since his victory, he has been mostly out of view. At his few public appearances - including a drastically shortened 45-second inauguration speech on 9 August - he looked stiff and spoke slowly. Report after report was published claiming he was ill (including one saying he was dead). But his aides insisted it was nothing more than exhaustion.

Few believed them, not least because Mr Yeltsin chose to remain secluded in a country hunting lodge while two huge political issues were playing out - Alexander Lebed's peace mission in Chechnya, and the US bombing of Iraq.

Mr Yeltsin's heart problems date back at least six years, but his worst bouts began last summer, towards the end of a five-year stint in office which had clearly taken its toll. On 10 July, he was taken to hospital suffering from ischaemia - a restriction of the blood flow to the heart. He took seven weeks to recover, only to be rushed to hospital again in October. Weeks elapsed before he was back to full strength.

Apart from serving as a reminder not to believe the President's aides, yesterday's announcement raises many questions. What kind of heart operation will he have? And who will run the country in the weeks, or even months, which it will take him to recover?

The Russian constitution, adopted in December 1993, states that if the president is incapacitated his job passes temporarily to the prime minister, currently Viktor Chernomyrdin. But the evidence of the past few weeks does not bode well. The top men in the Kremlin - Mr Lebed, Mr Chernomyrdin and Anatoly Chubais, Mr Yeltsin's chief of staff - are jostling for power, creating confusion at the heart of the government.

Mr Yeltsin finally gave his backing to his envoy Alexander Lebed's peace deal in Chechnya, although he opposed thekey point of rapid withdrawal of the Russian military. Mr Lebed was in Chechyna yesterday for another round of talks with the Chechen separatist chief-of-staff, Aslan Maskhadov.