Yeltsin returns to his Kremlin desk

Boris Yeltsin returned to work in the Kremlin yesterday, seven weeks after his heart bypass operation, and promised that life for Russians would get better in the new year.

In effect, the 65-year-old President was only just starting his second term of office. Immediately after the elections last July he had disappeared from public view, suffering again from the heart trouble which dogged him through much of 1995. After his operation on 5 November, he was obliged to follow doctors' orders and convalesce outside Moscow.

Although the world's camera crews have been trying to follow his every movement, journalists missed Mr Yeltsin's discreet return to his Moscow residence over the weekend. But television cameras caught his motorcade driving in through the Kremlin's Borovitsky Gate at 9.30am yesterday. In the yard, he was greeted by the Kremlin commandant. "I'm feeling fine, ready for battle," said Mr Yeltsin, dressed in an overcoat and fur hat against the December cold. "The coming year will be better for Russia.

That is the firm word of the President."

On his first day back at work, Mr Yeltsin was briefed by his chief of administration, Anatoly Chubais, a young market economist hated by the Communist opposition. Today he will meet his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin who, together with Mr Chubais, has been running the country in his absence.

Mr Yeltsin found time yesterday to speak on the telephone to John Major, who wished him well and promised to visit Russia in 1997. He has already chatted with his friend "Bill", the United States President, and hopes to travel to Washington next March.

But domestic problems are pressing. Millions of workers and pensioners have gone without wages and state allowances for months. The unreformed army, humiliated in Chechnya and lacking the funds to feed and house its officers and conscripts, is in a dire condition.

On the surface, Russia has changed considerably in the five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in practice, millions of Russians still feel only the pain of market reform.

In a television address to the nation on Friday, Mr Yeltsin said he would make it his priority to address social issues. "Quality of life" would be the new catchword and officials who did not pay sufficient attention to the needs of the people would be sacked, he declared.

The words were tough but the delivery was wooden. Asked about a charge from Mr Yeltsin's rival General Alexander Lebed that the Kremlin leader had started drinking again, Michael De Bakey, the Texas surgeon who was a consultant during the operation, said tactfully that a tipple would not hurt the President but he should resist heavy drinking.