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Yeltsin says he's ready for work

Boris Yeltsin, speaking on national television for the first time since his heart operation, assured Russians yesterday they would soon have an active president, dedicated to improving the quality of their lives.

"I feel the recovery period is over," Mr Yeltsin said in the broadcast, recorded at the country house where he has been convalescing since the bypass surgery in November.

"I am returning to the Kremlin on Monday. I will be there at 9 am. The doctors have done their job and now it is up to the President. The country needs an active and energetic president, especially now."

Michael De Bakey, the pioneering American heart surgeon who acted as a consultant during Mr Yeltsin's operation, has said he should be able to look forward to 10 more working years providing he takes a gentle pace initially.

The 65-year-old Kremlin leader, who wore a cardigan and lounged in an armchair for his television appearance, lacked spontaneity but spoke firmly as he answered the prepared questions of an official interviewer. What would be the first problems to which he would turn his attention ? "Pensions," said the President without hesitation. "Pensions and wages."

The delay in their payment to millions of Russians was "intolerable. It is completely unacceptable when the state cannot pay its people for the work they have done".

Tax-dodgers were largely to blame for the crisis, he said, adding that early next week he would look in on a meeting of a special new government commission set up in an attempt to raise revenue collection.

"We have a list of non-payers," said the President. "They should know that they will answer before the commission. I would like to remind directors of enterprises that if they can't pay, it means they can't cope. And if they can't cope, they should go. We will not tolerate a situation where honest people suffer." The Communists put up a strong challenge to Mr Yeltsin in presidential elections earlier this year, exploiting a groundswell of discontent among the poor who have yet to feel the benefits of market reform.

Mr Yeltsin said he would also be closely watching the peace process in Chechnya and concentrating on military reform. "We must decide what kind of army we need." Talk of cuts without proper clarification of how they would be carried out or what would become of demobilised officers was lowering morale in the forces.

Without naming names, the President said some government officials had been slacking in his absence but on the whole he was happy with the way the country had been run while he was ill. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin took over control of the nuclear button for the few hours of the operation and has been making many key decisions on behalf of Mr Yeltsin.

"This was a test of our constitution, of our maturity as a democracy," concluded the President. "Society has survived. We are on the right path."