Yeltsin bid to pin the blame on others

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

Boris Yeltsin yesterday launched a fresh offensive in his grand plan to secure another term in the Kremlin with a nationally televised address in which he distanced himself from his own government and attacked his own military leaders, but failed to come up with any specific solutions to his own worst blunder - the Chechen war.

Although he frankly admitted that mistakes had been made, the President's state of the nation speech made clear that a new tactic has been scribbled into the Yeltsin playbook - a plan to divert blame for the nation's woes away from the presidential suite in order to recapture his "man of the people" image.

In remarks that could easily have been uttered by his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, Mr Yeltsin warned that the public had run out of patience with the suffering wrought by reforms, and repeatedly stressed the need to pay heed to the lot of impoverished Russians by applying "socially acceptable" tactics.

"The government will either carry out its duty to defend the social and economic rights of people, or this will be done by another government," he said - a comment which some observers saw as a warning that he may turf out his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, before the election if matters do not improve.

Another target singled out during a stiff 50-minute speech to a joint session of parliament was his Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who fell victim to the President's desire to win favour among his demoralised, but vast, army.

Mr Yeltsin reeled off a long list of his achievements - from defending free speech to (genuine) signs that the economy is no longer nose-diving - but he admitted that the overhaul of Russia's post-Cold War military machine was not going well, despite claims to the contrary by top commanders. "How can someone talk about success if the armed forces get too little care ... and their minimal needs are not met?"

With question marks over his health, although he looked good yesterday, and popularity ratings that resemble the average Russian mid-winter temperatures, Mr Yeltsin has a long way to go if he is to stand a chance in June. But he is clearly preparing to put up a hard - even mean - fight.

Yesterday, like a US president campaigning against Washington politics, he grumbled about the bad law-making of parliament, red tape and corruption, and reeled off a list of officials whom he had fired for delaying wages. He has already had some small successes - including securing a $10bn (pounds 6.5bn) three-year International Monetary Fund loan, and recent indications that several of his noisiest critics in the pro-reform camp are willing to rally round his banner.

But the key issue everyone hoped he would address was Chechnya. On that, he had nothing new to offer, only reiterating his refusal to negotiate with the rebels. The President has vowed to end the war before the election. He says he is studying the findings of a commission set up to look into ways of ending the conflict, which will prove a "basis for peace".

If yesterday's performance is the best he can do, then he is probably in trouble - no matter how many clever new tactics he adopts.

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