Unhappy birthday for the President

Yeltsin's juggling act: Old democratic friends bale out
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Boris Yeltsin is 65 today, a birthday most Russians regard as an opportunity for a big party, if only because it is six years above the national average life expectancy for a man. But there will be no fireworks in Red Square, no official banquet. The President has precious little to celebrate.

Aides say he plans to mark the occasion quietly with his family. As he does so he will have ample opportunity to reflect on the problems gripping his administration. With less than five months to a presidential election, Mr Yeltsin is becoming increasingly isolated.

Evidence has yet to emerge that his latest efforts to salvage his flagging fortunes - by tossing out liberals from his government, cracking down on Chechen political activism and promising to throw money at Russia's poor - have won him any new friends.

But there are plenty of signs they have lost him old ones. Almost all Russia's liberal-leaning pro-reform factions hoot with laughter if you say "Yeltsin" and "democrat" in the same breath, despite President Bill Clinton's insistence that his old friend is still a committed reformer. "He has lost all the credentials of a democratic candidate," said Sergei Kolmakov, a political consultant.

One reformer after another has severed ties with the President, including four members of his defunct advisory body, the Presidential Council, who resigned in protest over his move towards authoritarianism. But none made more of an impact than Sergei Kovalyov, who quit last week as head of Mr Yeltsin's human rights commission. He fired off an open letter to his ex-boss, published yesterday in the Moscow Times, which stands as a measure of the chasm between Mr Yeltsin and the pro-reform lobby.

It was naive to think democrats remained in power in the Kremlin, he said. Mr Yeltsin had "virtually halted judicial reform", granted "exceptional extra-legal authority" to the security services, engaged in a "shameful and bungled civil war" in Chechnya, blocked military reforms, signed secret decrees, created closed institutions and become increasingly dependent on spies for his information.

"You began your democratic career as a forceful and energetic crusader against official deceit and party disposition," wrote Mr Kovalyov, "but you are ending it as the obedient executor of the will of the power-seekers in your entourage."

And there are plenty of these. Although a few liberals still lurk fearfully in the shadows of the administration, Mr Yeltsin's inner circle is dominated by hawkish former apparatchiks and security men, whose company the President has always preferred to that of the whizz-kid economists and academics who accompanied the first wave of post-Soviet euphoria.

For all this, the battle is not yet lost for Mr Yeltsin, who appears certain to run for a second term, although he has not declared his candidacy.

His national power base looks alarmingly thin, little more than a scattering of those Russians who have made money through free-market reforms (legally or illegally) and officials loath to lose office. But he may yet be able to win a place in an election run-off, using a combination of an advertising blitz, media controls (to the detriment of his opponents) and more promises of pay-outs. This could pitch him against the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, not a likely winner, or the front-runner, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

But he faces a daunting task. His problems do not stop at a shattered economy, a disastrous war, dismal ratings, a possible banking crisis, strikes over delayed wages by teachers and miners (who plan to walk out today), and heart problems. If a recent article by his former chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, is to be believed, there is even more division in the Kremlin than hitherto realised. Yet Mr Filatov urges the democrats to rally round Mr Yeltsin, saying he is ultimately their best option. With friends like that, Mr Yeltsin scarcely needs enemies. Unfortunately for him, as his lonely birthday testifies, he has plenty of them, too.