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Yeltsin rejects move to rewrite constitution

In his first radio address to the nation since being stricken with double pneumonia early last month, Boris Yeltsin yesterday tried to stifle rising demands for immediate constitutional amendments spawned by the uncertainty over his long-term future in the Kremlin.

Speaking for six minutes in a clear but slightly croaky voice, the embattled President sought to remind both his friends and foes that although he may be down - he has been off sick for most of the last seven months - he is not yet out.

Significantly, though, he did not dismiss the possibility of eventual changes to Russia's 1993 constitution, in which he secured sweeping powers, saying only that they must follow a "natural process" and not be rushed.

Alarmed by the prospect that he may be too unwell to rule for much longer, Moscow's political establishment has been embroiled in a debate about altering the constitution, partly to ensure that Russia's fate no longer rests so heavily in the hands of one man, and partly to block the favourite for the presidency, Alexander Lebed.

Suggestions have included considerably extending the time that the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, can stand in when the President is ill, a move that would delay the date of an election.

There have also been rumblings about allowing parliament to appoint the next president, a move that would radically alter the nature of Russia's political system. Both ploys would severely damage Mr Lebed's prospects.

Yesterday Mr Yeltsin sought to dampen down what has become a heated issue. "The constitution is the pivot of the new Russian statehood," he said.

"It is premature today to subject the new structure of the Russian state, as it is being built, to a test of its durability. It is more than that - it is foolhardy."

His broadcast came as he secured a small victory - the failure of a symbolic and lacklustre attempt in the Russian parliament's lower house, the Duma, to secure a motion calling on him to step down because of ill health. A truer measure of the President's fitness lies in the days ahead.

Mr Yeltsin's calendar for next week includes a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

After that loom even more daunting tests of his strength on which all eyes will rest - a speech to parliament on 6 March, and a summit with President Bill Clinton in Helsinki on 20-21 March.