Yeltsin's eye is off the ball - despite the specs

BORIS YELTSIN, veteran Houdini of politics and incorrigible showman, has a new disguise. He unveiled it last week, to surprise and scattered titters from Kremlin watchers. It is a large pair of glasses.

He wore them as he returned, yet again, from weeks on the sidelines, this time enforced by a bleeding ulcer. So rarely has he been at work that the mere fact of him going to his Kremlin office made headlines. Begoggled, he set about trying to stamp his authority anew.

But the landscape that the President viewed through his monster specs can have given him very little pleasure, quite apart from the Kosovo crisis. Much of his role has been usurped; there are even suggestions of a move to squeeze him out of office altogether, forcing early elections.

This was enshrined in an embarrassing episode which cut to the very heart of his power base and which, were it to have occurred in the US, would have taken on Watergate proportions.

On Tuesday Russia's chief prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, launched an unprecedented raid on offices within the Kremlin itself, in which piles of documents were seized. It was part of a joint investigation, conducted with the Swiss federal prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, into alleged illegalities by members of the president's inner circle.

At issue are a series of lucrative construction deals won by a Swiss firm, Mabetex (which denies any wrong-doing), including contracts to spruce up the Kremlin and other government buildings. Russia has for years been unable to pay its workers and pensioners, but hundreds of millions of dollars have been lavished on making life even more comfortable in the corridors of power.

Ten days ago, the Kremlin struck back. Apparently with the approval of presidential aides, a clip from a secretly filmed videotape appeared on state-run television, allegedly showing the prosecutor-general cavorting naked with two prostitutes. The tape found its way to the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, just before it was to determine whether to accept his resignation, offered under Kremlin duress, or to accept his plea to stay.

Unimpressed by these smutty scenes - now on sale on the streets of Moscow - the Federation Council came out in overwhelming support of keeping him on. So Mr Skuratov was allowed to press on with the Mabetex probe.

In a democratic country with a free media, such a scandal could be expected to topple a government. But corruption and kompromat fly around so freely in Russia, and Moscow's institutions of power are so unaccountable, that this was never a likelihood.

It was, however, a serious blow to the President, proof that he cannot now even muster the political muscle to fire the country's top prosecutor, an office over which he is accustomed to wielding control.

Some in Moscow's political circles believe the prosecutor's raids, orchestrated by Mr Yeltsin's enemies, were part of an effort to winkle the President out of office altogether. More probably, it was intended to keep him in his place - to force him to accept that power now longer rests in his hands, but in those of the Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and the Communist- dominated parliament.

The reality, though, is that the Boris Yeltsin era is already over. It came to an end last August after the devaluation of the rouble, the default on short-term foreign debt and the fall of the government of 36-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko.

Unpopular and chronically ill, Yeltsin lost a battle with the State Duma to restore his old prime minister, the disliked Viktor Chernomyrdin. He had to settle for a second choice, Mr Primakov, who soon began stealthily establishing his authority, positioning himself strategically well away from the unloved occupant of the Kremlin.

Mr Primakov's role is now critical. Suspicions abound that the shrewd premier played a part in the Skuratov affair, to the detriment of Mr Yeltsin. He has wide popular support, both with the public and an often unruly parliament. He has muddled through the winter, establishing a modicum of stability despite fears of starvation and unrest. No one else on the political landscape enjoys such consensus. True, he has fudged on the economy, but he has also taken a tough public stance against the oligarchs and corruption. He won more points last week for turning his jet around en route to Washington, once it became clear that Nato bombing was inevitable.

Mr Primakov repeatedly insists he is not remotely interested in running for president in next year's elections. But the 69-year-old Prime Minister is a wily old bird, whose years in the foreign intelligence services have made him a master of disguise - unlike the bespectacled Siberian in the Kremlin.

Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
i100... and no one notices
Arts and Entertainment
Friends reunited: Julian Ovenden, Richard Cant and Matt Bardock in rehearsals for the Donmar revival of 'My Night
with Reg'
theatrePoignancy of Kevin Elyot's play being revived just after his death
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobThe successful ...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor