Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Yeltsin calls for marathon talks In an interview, weary president seeks to show he is in control TURMOIL IN RUSSIA


MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin was missing his usual boisterousness yesterday when he walked into the dazzling gilt-and-white Kremlin hall built for czars.

But he wanted to make it clear he was not drunk.

He paused at the hall's magnificent gold doors that rise nearly 50 feet to the arched ceiling until his eye fell upon a Western reporter interviewing a member of the Russian Congress.

Mr. Yeltsin headed straight for the reporter, firmly shook her hand and stood expectantly, waiting for questions. The president of Russia was showing the world he was sober and in control, even if physically suffering both from days of abuse at the hands of an antagonistic legislature and from the anguish of his mother's death.

"My heart is heavy," he said. "I can't sleep. All of this is very difficult. All these feelings weigh on your soul. For two days I have been under this pressure, but I hope that somehow after my appeal to the deputies today they might change their minds and decide on an agreement tomorrow."

Just over an hour earlier, Mr. Yeltsin had made an unexpected visit to the Congress of People's Deputies, which was meeting in another hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace to consider his impeachment.

After a cantankerous session, during which some its members implied that the president was drunk, the Congress voted against impeachment proceedings and adjourned until today.

As its members dispersed, Mr. Yeltsin walked into the enormous and gilt-laden St. George Hall with his defense minister, Pavel Grachev, and his deputy prime minister, Vladimir F. Shumeiko, at either elbow.

They hung back, waiting, as Mr. Yeltsin talked, first to the lone reporter and then to a gathering group.

"Do you see me?" Mr. Yeltsin said, in a clear, level voice. "Look at me. I'm speaking to you right after my speech. Look at me." The president looked steadily into the face before him, his eyes glistening slightly but unblinking and not at all red.

"I haven't slept for three nights," he said.

He spoke and walked slowly, almost stiffly, like a person who felt unwell, or had a bad headache -- or hadn't slept for three days.

"Of course it has been a very hard time for me," he said, "and I feel the strain."

On March 20, Mr. Yeltsin declared he was assuming extraordinary presidential powers because the Congress was stripping him of authority, the move that led to the impeachment threat. The next day, last Sunday, his 85-year-old mother died in Moscow.

"I was very close to my mother," he said yesterday. "We were friends. We survived the war together and we saw famine together and we lived in a barracks together, and that's why it's very difficult for me to get used to the idea I have lost her."

As Mr. Yeltsin spoke, a knot of Russian reporters began to assemble. The president's bodyguards, who until then had been content to watch from a distance, drew close and formed a circle around him to keep the group from pressing too near.

Mr. Yeltsin was wearing a deep gray suit and a white shirt with a light stripe. His tie was held in place with a small round clip painted with a light purple flower.

At 62, he is a commanding figure, even when subdued as he appeared yesterday. His presence charged the air, even in the vast expanse of St. George Hall, which is 200 feet long and blinding as a Siberian snowstorm with its vast white walls and its six gilt chandeliers burning 3,000 electric bulbs.

Even though the impeachment proposal was defeated, other resolutions arose yesterday suggesting that Mr. Yeltsin resign and ordering him to reverse decisions of the last several days.

The president's aides asked for an hour's recess to study the resolutions. The Congress refused, so Mr. Yeltsin got up to speak to them.

He spoke slowly, without his usual verve, and he paused as he searched for words, prompting one deputy to imply he was drunk.

"Comrade deputies," Maria Sorokina shouted, "nearly all of you are men. There are only a few women here. How long will we put up with this disgrace?"

"It was a spontaneous move," said Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov.

Mr. Yeltsin's words had been conciliatory; he had assumed some of the blame for his bitter confrontation with Congress.

But his mild words only seemed to rile up the deputies, as if he were showing wounds, and they were sniffing blood.

"This great day finished in a typical Russian way. The president was dead drunk, you just saw that," said conservative Iona Andronov. "He is a sick man. How can you judge what he is saying because nobody knows what he will do next?"

After adjournment, another deputy suggested that if Mr. Yeltsin hadn't been drunk yesterday he soon would be.

"I will not comment on the state of the president's health," said Sergei Baburin, an arch-conservative who vowed that the Congress would yet end with a vote to impeach the president.

"He suggested one thing today. After his drunken sleep he will suggest something quite different," Mr. Baburin said.

With such attacks, Mr. Yeltsin said, it was no wonder he looked bad.

His face was puffy and even his hair -- usually swept back and up from the forehead -- looked defeated, pressed flat against his head.

"The Congress could serve as a detonator for the explosion of the whole situation," he explained. "So my mood after today's session is bad."

Still, he insisted, some compromise had to be found.

"It is simply necessary," he said. "Otherwise we shall explode the people. It can't be that the deputies don't understand that. They have come from all the regions of Russia. They know the mood of the Russian people."

Mr. Yeltsin, a man who likes people and prides himself on his popularity with the common folk, seemed hurt by all the invective hurled at him in the Congress.

"They should not have written a resolution blaming only Yeltsin for violating the constitution," he said, "though I won't walk away from my responsibility."

But as he stood in St. George Hall, Mr. Yeltsin seemed to gather strength from the very walls. A bas relief of St. George slaying the dragon loomed over his shoulder.

The hall was dedicated to czarist Russia's highest military decoration; gold-engraved marble slabs line the walls, summoning forth heroes who vanquished foes more terrible, even, than a Congress of People's Deputies.

"I will hold on," Mr. Yeltsin said. "I will stick to my point of view. My stand is firm, and I will not retreat. I will not retreat on the idea of a referendum April 25.

"I have a moral obligation to face the people so that they can make their choice; either they have confidence in me or they don't, and I will obey the decision of the people.

"It is not for the Congress to decide my fate. I give myself to the people, and it is for the people to decide. And I'm not afraid of that. I'm not shouting, 'Please keep me in office.' "

Yuri Luchinsky, a deputy from St. Petersburg, watched, captivated, as Mr. Yeltsin spoke.

"It's fortunate that Yeltsin chose an American journalist to talk with," he said.

"They're neutral. An American journalist can write the truth, that Yeltsin was not drunk, that he looked normal.

"Because not all of our journalists support Yeltsin, and there will be lies."

Like a man who had gotten something off his chest, Mr. Yeltsin walked away with a somewhat lighter step.

A short time later, Mr. Yeltsin walked out the Spassky Gates of the Kremlin. He was spotted on a street near the Kremlin, walking in a faint snow through the gathering darkness, chatting with passers-by and shaking hands.

It was as if, after days of exhausting battle, he was compelled to show his people and the world that Boris Yeltsin had not given up.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad