Yeltsin returns to keep Russia in suspense

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Moscow - President Boris Yeltsin, returning to the Kremlin unannounced, recorded a New Year address to the nation yesterday but maintained suspense over his political future.

The 64-year-old Russian leader, well wrapped up against freezing temperatures, strolled through the snow-covered grounds of the Kremlin on his first day back at work since suffering a heart attack more than two months ago, and stopped to chat with tourists in Cathedral Square.

Mr Yeltsin vowed to stick to his programme of reforms, despite gains by his Communist opponents in last week's parliamentary elections. But he gave no clues about whether he would seek re-election as president next year. "I am still thinking about it," he said, adding that he would announce his intentions at the beginning of February.

Under the Russian constitution, real power lies in the presidency, and Mr Yeltsin's rivals are already gearing up for an election scheduled for 16 June.

The President left a sanatorium earlier this week to spend the New Year holiday with his family at a neighbouring country residence in Barvikha, a wooded area west of Moscow. He was taken to hospital on 26 October for the second time in less than four months, suffering from ischaemia, a blood-supply problem. He has been increasing his workload gradually.

Interfax news agency said Mr Yeltsin assured Muscovites during his walkabout that there would be no reversal of market reforms, but acknowledged that the impact of reforms ought to be softened next year.

He pointed to signs of economic stabilisation, saying industrial output should grow and people should begin to feel the benefits.

However, he repeated a warning about economic "saboteurs", saying the staff of the ministries of economy and finance and some other organisations had to be improved. "There are still people there who are abusing their positions. A ruthless struggle must be waged with them," he said. "There are bureaucrats who are blatantly stealing and there are more than a few of them."

Mr Yeltsin told Interfax he was not ready to go back to working 18-hour days. "It is impossible to drive oneself too hard like the last time," he said, referring to his hasty return to work after his first hospital stay in July.