Yeltsin aides try to quell alarm as viral infection lands president in hospital

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin is in hospital with what his aides say is a virus. The news has caused a flurry of damage control from his aides, but came as no surprise.

The first inkling that something was wrong with the Russian president arose last week, during his trip to Sweden. For several months he had been remarkably sprightly, having fully recovered from the multiple coronary bypass and pneumonia that sidelined him last winter. Now, abruptly, he looked old and unwell again.

Yesterday suspicion hardened into fact with an announcement by the Kremlin that he was suffering from "an acute respiratory viral infection", the result of a cold, and had been dispatched to recover in the Barvikha sanatorium outside Moscow, a process that doctors expect to take up to 12 days. As Russia's small stock market shrunk nervously by a few per cent, the president's aides tried to quell any hint of alarm. His condition was not serious, said his spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky; he would be resting, but not confined to bed; he will be making his regular radio broadcast tomorrow. The Americans then weighed in obligingly with an announcement from the White House that there was "no reason for concern".

For those who watched Mr Yeltsin in Sweden, none of this was surprising. The Kremlin said yesterday this was where his cold began. So, too, did some of the erratic behaviour that characterised previous foreign excursions. He named Japan as a nuclear power (it isn't), confused Norway with Sweden, and made several operatic but largely meaningless offers on unilateral arms cuts. Once again, mutterings began to uncoil in the Western press that, just over a year after his heart operation, the president was back on the bottle (although with precious little evidence).

Other factors now seem more plausible. He may, indeed, have a viral infection. He may also be exhausted. Persistent ill health and the burdens of office have aged the 66-year-old Mr Yeltsin prematurely. He remains an obsessive man who either hurls himself into his work or withdraws to brood in private, detached and depressed. This year, the former condition has largely prevailed.