Yeltsin may aim for third term as President

Will Boris Yeltsin stand again for election as Russia's President? He hinted yesterday that his mind is not quite made up. Phil Reeves sifts through the evidence.

Kremlin watchers have never needed more than a slither of a rumour on which to base their predictions. So they were delighted yesterday when Boris Yeltsin served up a considerably tastier morsel - a hint, a palpable hint, that he has not ruled out running for a third term.

As ever, it was not so much what was said, as what wasn't. A month ago the 66-year-old president categorically stated would not seek another stint in office, preferring to stand aside for younger candidates. But yesterday ambiguity set in, fuelled by the evidence that he now seems to be positively relishing his job as the head of a chaotic, crime-drenched, country. He was joking when he recently described himself as Tsar Boris the First. But, for many, it had a plausible ring.

Questioned about a third term by reporters during a trip to Nizhny Novgorod, he laughed, but issued no clear denial. "Friends and colleagues have forbidden me from talking about this," he said.

However faint, the possibility that he might seek to hold onto power is a reflection of the president's extraordinary reversal of fortune in the last ten months. Can this be the man who was so sick with heart trouble only a year ago that he became a near hermit?

This week his former chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, told The Independent that Mr Yeltsin had twice told him that he was thinking of not running in last year's poll, when he won re-election. Those discussions were in the summer of 1995, when he was sick, unpopular, drinking, and sending thousands of his countrymen to their death in Chechnya. In the end, he was persuaded by his supporters - a tiny elite enriched by reforms, who feared a Communist victory - to stay on. Elements of the same group, now divided, seem to be at work again.

A third bid for office would lead to a debate over the Russian constitution which restricts presidents to two terms. However, Mr Yeltsin has some room for manouevre: he was first elected as president of the Russian republic in 1991, when it remained part of the Soviet Union. The Russian constitution, however, was not passed until 1993.

Yesterday's squall of speculation will not bring much joy to the millions of Russian empoverished by the transition from Communism, especially those who remember the stagnant last years of Leonid Brezhnev. Mr Yeltsin has already survived seven years longer than the average Russian male; by the end of a third term, he would be 73 - a mere two years younger than Mr Brezhnev when he died.

It is also a measure of the perverse nature of Moscow politics. The vast power of the president severely limits the role of the opposition between elections, condemning them to a life of dreaming wistfully about their next trip to the ballot box.

With three years left to the next election, two of his opponents - ex- general Alexander Lebed, and the liberal Grigory Yavlinksy - have already declared their candidacy. Several others, notably the autocratic mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, are blatantly campaigning. Election politics are on a permanent loop in Russia, and Mr Yeltsin's behaviour yesterday ensured that it keeps spinning merrily.