Yeltsin: The sick man of Europe

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The Independent Online
He was fighting two battles yesterday. First, he was seeking to defeat his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov. At the same time, and perhaps even more importantly, President Boris Yeltsin was seeking to convince Russians and the outside world that he is robust enough to govern his vast realm into the 21st century.

As the last polling stations closed in European Russia, 24 hours after they opened in Kamchatka in the Far East, the tentative signs were that he was winning on one of the two fronts: first exit polls gave Mr Yeltsin a lead over Mr Zyuganov of 55 to 40 per cent.

Less promising was the mounting evidence that the 65-year-old President and conqueror of Communism may be too sick to survive a full four-year second term in office.

The implications of this could be cataclysmic. Mr Yeltsin's illness, clearly more serious than the Kremlin's official account of a cold or sore throat, forced him to cast his ballot yesterday morning in the village of Barvikha outside Moscow, the same place where he convalesced after his two heart attacks last year. It was evidently a last-minute decision by his doctors to keep him under wraps. The President's staff had earlier escorted four busloads of television crews and reporters to Mr Yeltsin's usual voting station, Osenny Bulvar, in western Moscow.

After waiting for two hours for the President to arrive, the assembled media were finally informed by his trusty Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, that Mr Yeltsin had already cast his vote at 10am in Barvikha. "Why not - it's easier there, it's nearer there," Mr Chernomyrdin said. "He's all right. He has his finger on the pulse."

If Mr Yeltsin dies, the reins of power would pass over in the first instance to Mr Chernomyrdin, who has gained a reputation as a safe pair of hands. He would call fresh elections, within three months. Alexander Lebed, the retired army general whom Mr Yeltsin appointed two weeks ago to take charge of Russian national security, would be likely to stand for president. Few in the West would see much reason to rejoice.

Mr Yeltsin has been ill and disappeared from public view several times in the past, most notoriously in December 1994 when the Russian armed forces stormed into Chechnya and the President was said to be recovering from a "nose operation". But at 65, he has already lived longer than the average Russian male, and he inflicted a punishing schedule on himself when campaigning across Russia's 11 time zones before the election's first round.

With Mr Yeltsin's history of heart trouble, it seems logical to assume that his week-long absence from public view stems from the same problem. But the US television network CNN, whose broadcasts are closely followed by Russia's political classes, appeared to jump to the wrong conclusion when reporting, while the polls were still open, that Mr Yeltsin was suffering from angina.

A presidential adviser, Sergei Karaganov, pointed out that the Russian word "angina", which had been used to define the President's illness, means "sore throat" or "tonsillitis". That said, a sore throat appeared to be the last of Mr Yeltsin's worries as he spoke clearly, if woodenly, in a one-minute address filmed by Kremlin cameras at Barvikha.

"All of you, absolutely all of you, come along, don't forget your duty," the President said, exhorting citizens to vote. Explaining his failure to cast his ballot in Moscow, he joked: "I have already fulfilled the plan for talking to the press by 120 per cent." Whilst millions of provincial voters appeared unconcerned by the President's fragile health, to those in the know in Moscow and St Petersburg it was a more disturbing business. That is principally because of the rise to prominence of Mr Lebed.

He has made it clear he sees himself as Mr Yeltsin's natural successor and has shocked reformist opinion with a series of bellicose threats to shake up Russian society. If Mr Yeltsin, back in office, were to become seriously incapacitated, Mr Lebed would almost certainly make a bid for supreme power.

Mr Zyuganov, whose attempts to raise the health issue in the campaign's last week were largely suppressed by the pro-Yeltsin Russian media, made one last effort to capitalise on the President's illness yesterday. "Apparently his state of health is not very good. He has not seen any of his closest aides in the last few days," the 52-year-old Communist leader said, before voting in Moscow.

But last night those around the President had more immediate worries on their minds - specifically, the turn-out. Polls closed in 14 regions to reveal an estimated turn-out of around 62 per cent, a figure that was lower than Mr Yeltsin's campaign team could feel comfortable with, but above the dangerous 60-per-cent threshold at which he would stand a significant chance of defeat.

Further reports pages 12,13