Yeltsin's Absences Raise Doubts About His Rule

President may be focusing on Bosnia, but some question his health

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin's decision to postpone his first State of the Nation address scheduled originally for tomorrow has sparked the rebirth of Kremlinology in this country that feeds on rumors, speculation, and gossip.

On the same day that Mr. Yeltsin met visiting British Prime Minister John Major, the president's aides announced that the long-awaited address was put off until Feb. 24 to allow him to recover from a cold. Coming after an almost two-week absence from public sight, the announcement only fueled speculation that Mr. Yeltsin has everything from pneumonia to political cold feet.

The spread of this talk was enough to inspire a sharp retort from presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov. ``Politically motivated speculations about B. N. Yeltsin's health, based on lies and malevolence, look extremely ugly and unpatriotic,'' he said Tuesday, adding that Yeltsin will serve as president at least until his term expires in 1996.

But even Kremlin aides could not deny the sight of a tired, pale Yeltsin when he met with Mr. Major on Tuesday in the Kremlin, the president's first public appearance since he retreated last week to his country home.

In a breach of tradition, Yeltsin did not accompany Major during a stroll through the Kremlin, nor did the two leaders exchange welcoming speeches at the opening ceremony in the Kremlin's ornate St. George's Hall.

Major's two-day visit, during which the leaders signed a pact on reciprocal non-targeting of strategic nuclear missiles, was intended mainly to dispel Russia's concerns over NATO's 10-day ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs around Sarajevo to either give up their heavy artillery or face aerial bombardment. Last week, US President Clinton said he had difficulty reaching Yeltsin by telephone to discuss the NATO move.

At yesterday morning's session of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, opinions were mixed about the state of the president's health. ``As for his general unwellness, it might be a result of the political path that he forceably imposed on the country,'' Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said. ``He's brought the country to the brink of a collapse that didn't even exist at the end of [World War II.]''

``It's enough for a person to just take out his handkerchief and blow his nose, and people start speculating that he's ill,'' retorted longtime Yeltsin ally Mikhail Poltoranin. ``This is all sheer nonsense. People have been saying that Yeltsin is ill for the last two years. His heart does ache, but it aches for Russia, for Russia's future, for its revival.''

Mr. Poltoranin suggested that Yeltsin chose to postpone the address to concentate on the Bosnia problem. Others are saying he is unwilling to face a Duma hostile to the Western alliance's stance.

``We think the decision could lead to World War III,'' Mr. Zyuganov said. ``We will not allow our Orthodox brothers to be killed by air bombs. I personally consider this to be an attack against Russia.''

RUSSIA, which has close historical ties with the Serbs, has consistently opposed the possible airstrikes, insisting that this requires a new United Nations Security Council decision. But on Saturday, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev allowed that airstrikes could take place as a ``last resort'' and to protect UN forces.

On Tuesday, presidential aide Kostikov warned that if NATO carries out airstrikes, Moscow might withdraw its support for the Partnership for Peace deal, which allows Eastern European countries to enter into an associated link to NATO.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told parliament yesterday that Moscow considered the NATO ultimatum illegal. ``Our aim is to make sure that the ultimatum is never carried out,'' he said.

Yeltsin, however, has appeared primarily concerned that Russia could be cut off from the decisionmaking process. ``Some people are trying to resolve the Bosnian question without the participation of Russia. We will not allow this,'' he told reporters after signing the nuclear ban agreement with Major.

Yeltsin's address was to concentrate on the economy, but also contained sections about judicial reform, the government's federal structure, and the status of Russian speakers on former Soviet territory, presidential aide Georgy Satarov told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The mystery surrounding Yeltsin's recent actions, however, has only prompted the kind of speculations of power shifts inside the Kremlin's red-brick walls that accompanied the decline of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Rumors of reshuffle in the top ranks of the military to remove persons disloyal to Yeltsin swept through town on Tuesday, for example, prompting a harsh denial yesterday in Red Star, the Army daily.

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