Boris Yeltsin broke all Kremlin taboos yesterday by finally admitting that he is has agreed to have surgery to cure his continuing heart ailment. His announcement comes after weeks of speculation about his health, and explains why has been in virtual seclusion for more than two month, leaving a vacuum in the heart of the Kremlin.
In a television interview, Mr Yeltsin explained that surgeons have informed him that he either had to have an operation, or would have to work "passively". Speaking slowly, he said: "Passive work never suited me. Nor can it suit me now. That's why an operation and full recovery, as they promise, is better than passive activity."
The surgery is expected to take place at a cardiological centre in Moscow. Mr Yeltsin, who had two heart attacks last year, was quick to quash reports that he will go abroad for the operation, at the end of the month. According to Reuters, Kremlin aides have indicated that it will be a by-pass operation, although that has not been confirmed.
There have been reports for weeks that Mr Yeltsin's heart condition had returned. They began when the 65-year-old President suddenly dropped out of view after the first round of the presidential election in June.
As his absence persisted, his aides blamed acute weariness from the campaign, although few commentators believed them. The President's announcement, made to the little-know RIA Novosti news agency, appears to mark a change in policy within the Kremlin. Mr Yeltsin said he wanted to end the practices of secrecy that dominate Russian government - a remark that acknowledges that the misinformation circulated by his aides has done nothing to end international speculation about his condition. "I want to have a society based on truth here. That means no longer hiding what we used to hide," he said.
In what may have been an attempt to divert some attention from his condition, Mr Yeltsin used his television appearance to announce that, after days of apparently shunning Alexander Lebed, his peace envoy in Chechnya, he now supported the recently signed peace deal. However, he was critical of one of its key components - a speedy withdrawal of troops. Mr Lebed yesterday met the Chechen rebel chief-of-staff, Aslan Maskhadov.
The announcement of Mr Yeltsin's heart problems led television news broadcasts in Moscow last night. The key question facing Russians is who takes control while Mr Yeltsin, who is due to meet the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl tomorrow, is out of action. Under the constitution, Viktor Chernomyrdin should step in, but he has been wrestling for power and influence with Mr Lebed.
In Soviet times, leaders' health was considered a secret and the state often went to bizarre lengths to hide problems. When Leonid Brezhnev was in his decline, pictures were falsified and events specially staged for television to suggest he was well. For months before his successor Yuri Andropov died, officials said he had a cold.
In recent months Mr Yeltsin's health had been shrouded in a secrecy reminiscent of old times. Yeltsin disappeared from public view in late June. His aides said he was simply tired and recovering from a vigorous election campaign that brought him victory over a communist rival. Since then, Mr Yeltsin has made only one public appearance, on 9 August, briefly showing up at his inauguration ceremony.
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