FOR THE first time in his seven-year presidency, Boris Yeltsin was compelled by ill health yesterday to meet a foreign head of state in the Moscow hospital in which he has been an all-too-regular client.
Sick yet again - this time, aides said, with pneumonia - Mr Yeltsin met China's President, Jiang Zemin, for an encounter which, though potentially critical to Russia's wrecked economy, was clearly curtailed by his own enfeebled condition.
The Kremlin did its best to play down this latest health scare, which has arisen at a time when the political temperature has reached seething point in Russia over the death of Galina Starovoitova, the popular democratic parliamentarian whose funeral is expected to draw emotional crowds in St Petersburg later today.
A clip of a soundless film was shown on Russian television in which a reasonably animated Mr Yeltsin met his guest in a conversation punctuated with firm hand gestures. Later, news agencies said the President's temperature, which had been up to an alarming 38.9C (102F) at the weekend, was down to normal.
A spokesman suggested his condition was linked to his distress over the murder of Ms Starovoitova, who was his close adviser during his first fight for the presidency in 1991.
There was no avoiding the fact that his illness was another indication that as Russia's economy heads for a winter of even deeper decline and discontent, the President is in no condition to rule day-to-day, and power has passed into the hands of his Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov. These days, even Kremlin spokesmen make little attempt to conceal this.
The contrast between the Kremlin incumbent and the President, whom many expect to succeed him, was starkly drawn when Mr Primakov appeared on national television with a firm promise to end "at any price" any symptoms that Russia was "on the path to fascism".
These remarks were intended to offset concerns about the rise of overt anti-Semitism, an issue which grabbed national attention after the murder of Ms Starovoitova. She had spoken out against parliament's recent failure to condemn public remarks by a rabidly anti-Jewish Communist, Albert Makashov, a retired general.
Yesterday there was further evidence of a widespread public willingness to tolerate anti-Semitism when voters in municipal elections in the vast south-west Krasnodar region overwhelmingly supported a far-left party backed by their governor, Nikolai Kondratenko.
The governor, who has a record for letting his fervent nationalism slide into racism, had berated liberals for condemning the general's anti-Semitic comments.
The murder of Ms Starovoitova has restored the harsh and perilous lines of political division in Russia, pitting the previously divided democrats (the intelligentsia, market economist, and most of the media) against the "red-brown" (Communist and nationalist) forces who dominate the State Duma (lower house of parliament).
For once, the democrats - tainted by repeated failures in the Yeltsin years, including weak resistance to the Chechen war and several corruption scandals - have reclaimed the high moral ground.
Although it scarcely matters whether Mr Yeltsin is in hospital or not - he has been detached and ineffectual for weeks - his latest illness was seized on by some of his opponents as further evidence that he should stand down. Their list of other reasons for his departure is lengthening by the day - a collapsed rouble, 40 million Russians below the poverty line out of 147 million, predicted food and medicine shortages, rising unemployment, withering foreign investment and an economy paralysed by corruption.
At a meeting with law and order officials, however, Mr Primakov - who insists that he does not want to occupy the Kremlin despite growing support for his candidacy - made clear he still envisaged presidential elections being held according to schedule in 2000.
Although the West sees him as a free-market sceptic, with disturbingly patriarchal and interventionist tendencies, he has won support in the country, largely because he is an uncontroversial figure who does not offer the prospect of abrupt and painful change. Most Russians have had enough of the ravages visited on them by Western economic remedies.
He also used the opportunity yesterday to rebuff suggestions from the left that emergency measures were required after the killing of Ms Starovoitova. Liberals are worried that her death could be used as an excuse to clamp down on the press and human rights. There would be no dictatorship, said Mr Primakov. At the same time he called for tough action to "root out crime" after what he called "mind-boggling excesses" - a clear reference to the parliamentarian's murder.
To help ease the current mood of indignation, the police released a video of armed officers bursting into the haunts of suspected criminals, including drug addicts, looking for clues. The one man who might have some, Ruslan Linkov, Ms Starovoitova's aide who was injured alongside her in Friday's attack, regained consciousness yesterday. But it remains to be seen to what extent his memory is intact.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies