Yeltsin abandons trip after illness

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BORIS YELTSIN'S efforts to reassert himself as leader of a floundering Russia were wrecked last night after he cut short his first foreign trip for more than five months because of ill health.

Looking ashen-faced and weak, the President was forced home to Moscow from Kazakhstan in central Asia, after contracting what his aides said was bronchitis, although suspicions abound that it is a more serious condition.

The trip should have been an opportunity for Mr Yeltsin to play a statesman's role, after two disastrous months in which the rouble collapsed by two- thirds, investor confidence vanished after a massive debt default, and the President suffered a humiliating political defeat over his choice of prime minister. But it turned out as another reminder that, at 67, he now increasingly seems physically and mentally incapable of running the world's largest country, a nuclear power in the grip of an economic maelstrom and in political limbo.

The President's illness - the latest in a list of health problems that stretches back for years - was obvious from the moment he walked stiffly into a gilded hall within the palatial headquarters of his friend, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in Almaty yesterday afternoon.

His skin was as white as his shock of hair. As he signed a stack of economic and political agreements before scores of anxious-looking Russian and Kazakh officials, he almost looked like a small boy learning to write. His tongue jutted out of the corner of his mouth while he wrote his name - a process that took a full 25 seconds for just one signature. Afterwards he made no comment on the deals he had just signed. Then he left, escorted out of the room by his fellow President, whose arm was behind his back. "I hope you journalists won't tell any lies," he said, before exiting, while the press waited in vain to ask questions.

His trip to the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - almost home territory to Russian eyes - went wrong before it began, and was further evidence that Mr Yeltsin, who spends much of his time in a country residence outside Moscow, is a liability on the road. When he arrived in Tashkent on Sunday, he almost toppled over during a ceremony at the airport, and swayed as he stood.

His new spokesman, Dmitri Yakushkin, spent yesterday working on damage control, describing his boss's condition as a cold, and blaming Mr Yeltsin's disorientated appearance on the effect of combining antibiotics and air travel. Kremlin aides also tried to blame Mr Yeltsin's return, a day earlier than planned, on his doctors orders, and on the Kosovo crisis.

A "cold" is a euphemism the Kremlin has sometimes used in the past to conceal some of Mr Yeltsin's serious problems. In the past three years alone, these have included at least two heart attacks, leading to a quintuple coronary bypass, and double pneumonia.

Yesterday evening his aides upgraded his ailment to bronchitis and a slight fever. Whatever the truth, the timing is dismal luck. In recent weeks, Mr Yeltsin has slipped into the shadows, leaving matters to the one-month-old administration of Yevgeny Primakov.

But the new government has yet to establish its authority, or to produce any convincing evidence that it has any idea what to do to solve the economic crisis. What it needs least are fresh rumours that the President is at death's door. But these are now as inevitable as the first winter snows.