Seaside sojourn allows Yeltsin to reflect on Russia's murky depths

New guard left in charge of ailing and corrupt economy, writes Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
Moscow - Three months ago, the news would have been greeted worldwide as further evidence that Boris Yeltsin was about as physically capable of governing Russia as Lenin, whose corpse still lies in a mausoleum in Red Square.

Not any more. The Kremlin's announcement yesterday that Mr Yeltsin is going off for yet another break caused but a flicker of interest. Both Russians and the international community seem persuaded at last that the president is back in business.

Later this month he will set off for his customary spring holiday at the Black Sea resort of Sochi where he will spend two weeks. It will conclude a typically frantic two months in which Mr Yeltsin - who tends to govern in sporadic and flamboyant bursts - has overhauled his government, agreed terms for a charter on Russia's relationship with Nato, and set a fresh course towards the free market.

For once, when he gazes across his colossal fiefdom, Mr Yeltsin may be tempted to reflect that it has improved, at least when compared with last year. The Chechen war has ended, although tensions still simmer away between Moscow and the new separatist government in Grozny. Fears that Communists and nationalists would seize control of the Kremlin evaporated. Infighting among the government's big guns has subsided into bickering.

There have been thousands of strikes over Russia's $9bn (pounds 5.6bn) wages and pensions arrears, but no large scale unrest. Mr Yeltsin is not a healthy man, but he also does not appear to be at death's door any longer. The possibility that he might fulfil his term - unthinkable only a few weeks ago, when he had double pneumonia - no longer causes guffaws of disbelief.

But the calm is misleading, for the landscape is littered with lethal snares. The armed forces remain on the verge of collapse; the government, to the dismay of the International Monetary Fund, is still failing to collect its revenues - last month it only raised 40 per cent of its tax target. Russia remains littered with vast, filthy, Soviet-era industries that are either producing unsaleable products or have shut down.

Those businesses that are making money are heavily infiltrated by criminals, many of whom work hand-in-hand with corrupt officials. Despite signs that Russia's moribund economy may at last be reviving, moves are afoot for a deeper union with the even more depressed Belarus, which could prove a heavy economic burden.

The task of overseeing this messy situation while Mr Yeltsin is on holiday falls to his new government and particularly its new reformers whose ranks swelled further yesterday with the appointment of Sergei Prikhodko as presidential adviser on foreign affairs. He will be working alongside the man who has become the dapper public face of the Kremlin, presidential spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky.

Captain of the new class is Boris Nemtsov, who shares the number two position in government with his fellow free marketeer, Anatoly Chubais. Mr Nemtsov's first few weeks as First Deputy Prime Minister have paid dividends. Yesterday a poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Centre named him as Russia's most popular politician - fractionally ahead of the retired paratrooper general, Alexander Lebed, and way above Mr Yeltsin himself, who was seventh.

However, support for the ex-governor of Nizhny Novgorod seems certain to wither. Millions of Russians - already struggling to survive five years of economic collapse - are unlikely to take kindly to government plans to overhaul their housing subsidies. Already the powerful energy lobby in Moscow is squaring up for a brawl over Mr Nemtsov's plans to break up Russia's vast natural resources , transport and energy monopolies.

Although shrewd, Mr Nemtsov can also be careless. Witness his memoir containing his reflections on life and politics called A Provincial Man, to be published later this month.

The book contains some tart remarks about his new bosses. Mr Yeltsin, though depicted as tough and brave, is sometimes "reckless and careless". Viktor Chernomyrdin is "honest", but "hardly capable of being prime minister in times of crisis."