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.