Moscow - The Kremlin said yesterday that President Boris Yeltsin was feeling better in hospital, while his political foes sharpened their knives as they began campaigning for Russia's parliamentary election on 17 December.
Mr Yeltsin, 64, was taken to hospital a week ago after suffering his second mild heart attack in four months.
"He is better, of course," a presidential spokesman said by telephone. "Medical treatment bears fruit." The statement bore a marked contrast to a cautious assessment by the top presidential adviser Viktor Ilyushin on Wednesday, who said after a brief meeting with Mr Yeltsin: "I cannot say that he looks well." Yesterday, after visiting Mr Yeltsin again, Mr Ilyushin said: "Things are getting better because the President has started getting into things."
Mr Ilyushin, a loyal Yeltsin lieutenant, said on Wednesday that the President himself realised that his second mild heart attack in less than four months was "no joking matter".
Yeltsin aides were reported yesterday to be working hard to ensure the Kremlin leader's re-election next June, though Mr Yeltsin has yet to say if he is a candidate. Their current efforts suggest his Kremlin associates believe the President's heart illness will not rule him out of the race, according to a group of political analysts.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace quoted a source close to the chief Yeltsin bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov, as saying the administration was working "full steam ahead" on Mr Yeltsin's campaign for the June presidential poll.
Media and television cameras have been kept well away from Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital. With political tension high among myriad parties in the run-up to the December election, aides have been careful to say he is in command.
But Mr Ilyushin's Wednesday meeting with Mr Yeltsin was restricted to 10 minutes, strongly suggesting there was a limit to his grip on day-to- day events.
Up to now most of Mr Yeltsin's many opponents have refrained from trying to exploit his illness for fear of such a ploy back-firing. But as political parties began the first formal day of campaigning yesterday, with the first snow of winter swirling in Moscow, Mr Yeltsin's powerful Communist foes took the gloves off.
The Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, took a swipe at the bed- ridden leader for his eccentric behaviour. Listing events on Mr Yeltsin's heavily-charged programme before he was taken ill, Mr Zyuganov referred to him "paying attention to a secretary" - an allusion to an incident when he "tweaked" a Kremlin secretary in the back at the start of a news conference. Mr Zyuganov suggested Mr Yeltsin's illness had highlighted the weakness of the presidential system in which the State Duma has been largely sidelined as a decision-making body.
"We must strictly follow the law, strengthen all bodies of power . . . because the country cannot be hostage to the state of health and behaviour of one person," he said.
The Communists were one of 35 parties officially registered on Wednesday night. The Central Electoral Commission has barred the main reform party, Yabloko, headed by the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, on technical grounds, but the party has appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse the decision.
With Mr Yeltsin's advisers having only limited access to him, Russian commentators are asking who is really running the country.
Speculation has focused on General Korzhakov, who appears to wield influence beyond his formal role, and could use access to Mr Yeltsin in hospital for political ends.Reuse content