Yeltsin calls out the spin doctor

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The Independent Online
IT USED to be that foreign leaders would visit Moscow to be assured that a doddery old man with a shabby suit and a shaky finger on the nuclear button was in the peak of good health. Now the ritual has been reversed.

When John Major met Boris Yeltsin yesterday for toasts in the Kremlin, the Russian President seemed reasonably sturdy. He looked a bit pale, but stood up throughout a brief press conference and made cracks about tennis and cricket.

Then the Kremlin image men got to work, adding spin to what journalists thought they had seen. 'Yeltsin does not look well,' said Anatoly Krasikov, a Kremlin spokesman. 'He has not yet properly recovered from a bad cold.'

Indeed, so fragile is Mr Yeltsin's health said to be that a long-awaited state of the nation address on Friday is in doubt. 'I have a growing impression that Boris Nikolayevich will postpone his speech to Parliament,' added Mr Krasikov.

The President has been rumoured to suffer from a range of diseases, many linked to repeated, but never wholly substantiated, reports of binge drinking. Yesterday's encounter with Mr Major was his first public appearance since a trip to Georgia nearly two weeks ago. Mr Major said later the Russian President had 'a nasty cough' and a 'bad chest cold'.

His aides used to follow the old script: routine denials of any talk of ill-health. Last week, though, came 'the cold' - tantamount in the old days to asking for volunteers as pall- bearers. Mr Yeltsin's 'cold' has proved less lethal than those caught by Brezhnev, Andropov or Chernenko.

The mystery bug was first mentioned to explain why Mr Yeltsin had left his office in the Kremlin and retreated to a dacha in the country, where he was said to busy consulting world leaders by telephone about Sarajevo.

The story quickly unravelled. Washington complained that President Bill Clinton had been trying for two days to 'consult' Mr Yeltsin but had not got through. Other foreign leaders had no more luck. Mr Clinton and Mr Yeltsin did finally talk at the end of the week.

The Kremlin may have altered its rituals, but the old enigmas of who is really in charge seem as securely wrapped in mystery as ever.