Yeltsin cancels diary, raising health fears

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Boris Yeltsin yesterday cancelled all his engagements for the next 10 days, including a trip to Oslo which aides had been citing as evidence that the President's heart problem was not too serious. The announcement is likely to increase speculation about the state of Mr Yeltsin's health and bring more opposition calls for his retirement.

Viktor Ilyushin, a presidential spokesman, said all engagements from 17 to 23 July were off and Mr Yeltsin would stay in the Central Clinic next week. Mr Ilyushin said the President had been under stress because of the war in Chechnya and related political crises. But he emphasised there had been no deterioration in Mr Yeltsin's health.

The increasingly sensationalist Russian press is sure to view the announcement as evidence the 64-year-old leader is at death's door. Russian journalists have been speculating that his heart might not be the only trouble. Despite official denials, he is widely believed to have a drink problem and reports have suggested his liver could be failing. Some have even said the President's stay in hospital could mean a coup is in the air.

Opposition politicians have said the latest health scare shows Mr Yeltsin is not fit for his job and should retire, instead of planning to stand in presidential elections due in June next year.

Western journalists have been more inclined to accept the official health reports, although they have been no less irreverent. Yesterday, the English-language newspaper Moscow Times ran a cartoon of Mr Yeltsin in his hospital bed with a panel of buttons which he could press for a nurse, a cup of tea, his bedpan or to launch a nuclear strike.

Press coverage has offended the First Lady, Naina Yeltsin, who said yesterday her husband had suffered "verbal sadism". She wanted the people to know he was "fine" and working on state papers.

Among the documents he signed yesterday was a decree fixing the date for parliamentary elections as 17 December. This came as a relief to MPs, who had feared he might find some excuse for postponing the poll.

Mr Ilyushin said Mr Yeltsin is also monitoring the progress of peace talks in Chechnya. The President "is inclined to think that a poor peace is a better than a war", said the spokesman, in a comment which hinted that Mr Yeltsin was regretting his Caucasian military adventure.

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