Yeltsin speech lands a punch

BORIS YELTSIN defied the odds yesterday by delivering his state- of-the-nation speech without disasters, and even landing a punch on the chin of his prime minister by warning him against a "revanche".

His long-awaited speech to parliament, though delivered confidently enough, was far from vintage Yeltsin, being bereft of emotion, let alone passion. It was only 18 minutes long, as he chose to deliver more detailed views on the economy in the form of a written report.

It came at a difficult time, even though Russia was patting itself on the back yesterday after winning an agreement for an IMF loan, the amount to be announced, which looks suspiciously like a Western pay-off to ease Moscow's injured feelings over the Balkans.

In the twilight months of his reign, Mr Yeltsin is over-burdened by problems: a shattered economy, attempts by his opponents to curb his powers and even impeach him, chronic ill-health and a corruption investigation that strikes to the heart of the Kremlin.

Bespectacled these days, he looks weary and remote - more the semi-retired chairman of the board, a vague figurehead who knows nothing of day-to- day details, than an active chief executive. But he got through the performance, his first major speech for months, without serious hiccups, albeit also without much applause. In fact, Mr Yeltsin - or at least his speechwriters - even proved there is fight in him yet.

He took several swipes at his premier, Yevgeny Primakov, who was in Belgrade trying to broker peace. He praised the Prime Minister for piloting the country through the perilous months after last August's economic crash, but he also delivered a warning against "new centralisation" - a return, in other words, to Soviet-style interventionism at the expense of market economics and individual freedoms.

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