News management of Yeltsin illness stirs public speculation


MOSCOW -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, short of breath but pointedly standing for a full five-minute television interview, appeared for the first time in public last night since he was hospitalized a week ago.

Mr. Yeltsin, 64, told Russian Public Television he'd suffered a heart attack July 11, but, "I'll be in operation soon. The doctors say the recovery will be complete, without any consequences."

At least Russians now know that Mr. Yeltsin isn't dead or dying in a hospital bed.

But given the Russian reflex for intrigue, the question about Mr. Yeltsin's hospitalization was not simply, "Is he healthy?" but "What's he up to?"

So Mr. Yeltsin's public re-emergence -- a stiff stand-up interview, dressed in a jogging suit, in a spare hospital waiting room -- seemed to dispel little public skepticism of this nation's young democratic leadership.

Indeed, Mr. Yeltsin's television appearance -- which also included a flourish of flowers and a kiss from Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin -- followed a week of strange signals that echoed Soviet-era mystery.

Most striking was the photo Mr. Yeltsin's press secretary handed out Friday purportedly showing a healthy Mr. Yeltsin in his hospital room, but which appears actually to be a photo taken while the president was vacationing three months ago.

Because Mr. Yeltsin proved yesterday to look as healthy as he did in the earlier photo, Moscow Radio journalist Andrei Raikin suggested there must have been some mysterious political meaning behind such a gambit.

"It's normal for a politician to go into the hospital [elsewhere]. But here, as soon as it happens there's a hidden struggle for power in the circles around him," said Mr. Raikin.

As a result he, as well as many Russians, concluded, "Nobody really knows because there's no information you can trust."

"There is nothing unusual about this [the apparent manipulation of news]," observed Yevgenia Albats, a Moscow News columnist. "The lives of our leaders always have been closed. It's kind of the rules of the game: The authorities lie, and we know they lie."

Even Giorgi Satarov, a close Yeltsin aide who was eager in an interview last week to confirm that Mr. Yeltsin's hospitalization was "nothing dangerous," did not hesitate to stir up the suggestion that many people "say that if he's in the hospital, he's up to something."

Still another take on the situation is less Machiavellian.

"It seems like incompetency to me," said Michael McFaul, senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"If the guy's OK, why not take a real photo? [Because] in the Kremlin, only a few see Yeltsin physically. And he [the press secretary] is not on that list. Even the prime minister hadn't seen Yeltsin in a week."

Mr. McFaul speculated that the strange photo incident was simply a matter of the press secretary struggling -- ineptly -- to toe the Kremlin line.

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