Yeltsin takes a tough stance to woo voters

Russian election run-off: Doubts over his health prompt president to step back into limelight

After disappearing from sight on the eve of Russia's presidential election, Boris Yeltsin sought to dispel doubts about his health yesterday with a lengthy interview full of calculated appeals to both nationalist and liberal voters.

The interview, published by the Interfax news agency three days before Wednesday's second round of voting in the presidential elections, was notable for the tough line taken by the President on relations with Nato, the Baltic states and Japan. Warning Nato not to expand its influence over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Mr Yeltsin said: "To anyone who has doubts, I want to say that Russia is not going to leave the Baltic, and we will strengthen and develop our military base in Baltiisk [in the Kaliningrad enclave]. Peter the Great did not open a window to Europe and reach the Baltic region just for us to board it up."

He also warned against attempts to change the status of the Turkish-controlled straits joining the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, saying: "Russia will react strongly to attempts to turn the Black Sea into yet another bridgehead for the Nato fleet and non-Black Sea states." In what looked like an overture to nationalist voters in the Russian Far East, he said Russia rejected Japan's claims to the Kurile Islands, occupied by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War.

He told Interfax that once the election was over he would make his first visit as President to the Kuriles. Such statements, stressing Russia's role as a great power, appeared to be aimed at Russians who voted in the first round last month for Alexander Lebed, the retired general who later received two powerful national security posts in the presidential administration, or for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist.

But Mr Yeltsin also took care to woo supporters of Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal economist, saying he should play an important part in forming the next government.

The President was last seen in public on 26 June, when he greeted military academy graduates in the Kremlin and toasted them with a glass of vodka. His campaign team attributed his subsequent absences to a busy schedule of speeches and interviews which caused him to lose his voice.

Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist opponent on Wednesday, tried to extract maximum capital from Mr Yeltsin's withdrawal from the public stage. "At 65, after two serious heart attacks, you can't be in good health," he said.

Adding to the atmosphere of pre-election confusion, Mr Lebed announced yesterday that he wanted to recreate the vice-presidency in Russia - a job that Mr Yeltsin abolished in 1993 after its then incumbent, Alexander Rutskoi, participated in an armed uprising against him.

Mr Lebed, who clearly sees himself as Mr Yeltsin's natural successor, said: "We need this post and a person who would assume constitutional powers and take political and even military decisions."

Eleven foreigners were expelled and 28 Russian citizens were arrested on spying charges last year, AP reports. President Yeltsin said that, in 1995, Russia's security services thwarted 67 attempts to pass secret information, presumably to foreign intelligence organisations.

"Eleven agents of foreign intelligence services who had worked under the roofs of their embassies were caught red-handed and ousted from Russia," the President told Interfax.

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