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Yeltsin's words go missing on the Net

WITH a team of advisers on hand to correct any gaffes and to edit his lengthy replies, Boris Yeltsin made his first public appearance in cyberspace yesterday and - even in this spin doctor's paradise - became the focus of a strange controversy.

Following in the footsteps of a diverse crowd of celebrities - from Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair to the disgraced Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman - the Russian president spent half an hour as the on-line guest of the US cable company MSNBC in an event that was, absurdly, termed a "chat".

His performance, billed by one Moscow Internet provider as "the coolest site of the day", was enthusiastically anticipated in his vast home country, where it featured prominently on television news bulletins all day. In remarks that raise as many concerns as they lay to rest, his on-line audience read that he was trying to prove that he was in good shape, and that he was - sic - in "GOOD health".

The 67-year-old president, who tends to oscillate from insomniac hyperactivity to exhausted inactivity, said he started the day "at 5am", having woken at 4am. "It does not affect either my appearance or my energy. We don't know what will happen in our lives, but now I am in good health. In the future I don't know."

At this point, the mystery arose. According to a transcript from MSNBC, Mr Yeltsin made an unclear reference to the next election, which could have been taken as a hint that he had not ruled out a third term. "As for the presidency, for the year 2000 we still have two years. We'll see." However, these words were not present in a Kremlin transcript of the event.

Answering a question about his younger daughter, Tatyana, a senior adviser, he announced that Russia was "not prepared ... for my daughter or any other woman at this time."

It appears the country once governed by Catherine the Great and which reveres Margaret Thatcher is not ready for another matriarchy. Which is not to say that, in the president's eyes, women have no contribution to make. Mr Yeltsin praised his wife, Naina, and two daughters for taking care of him.

The Internet session was part of a move to raise Mr Yeltsin's international profile in the run-up to this week's G8 summit in Birmingham.