The world according to Boris: Yeltsin bounces back into view to meet the press

September 09, 1995|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Expounding on everything from God to grandchildren -- with equal doses of cornball humor and angry fist-waving -- President Boris N. Yeltsin showed himself to be back to his hearty self yesterday, at his first lengthy public grilling since a heart attack two months ago.

In a coherent, often bluntly rude style, Mr. Yeltsin fielded three dozen questions from Russian and foreign journalists in a performance that could quell some of the intense speculation about his health and capabilities as a head of state -- and that could hardly have hurt his public approval ratings, which have dropped below 10 percent.

His remarks touched on everything from his own political future to Russia's role in the Balkans to his new grandson.

Mr. Yeltsin said he would refuse to say until sometime next year whether he will run in 1996 for a second term; he angrily described the NATO bombing of Bosnian Serbs as "the first sign" of what could happen right up to Russian borders. He announced that he had intervened this week in his grandson's baptism to change his name from Georgy to Gleb; he berated his chief crime-fighting official because of mounting organized crime.

And in a theological digression, Mr. Yeltsin got some laughs. Sergei Medvedev, his press secretary, read the questions submitted by journalists and chose the questioners, with Mr. Yeltsin encouraging him not to forget the female journalists.

"Boris Nikolayevich, do you think about God?" Mr. Medvedev read.

"About what?" Mr. Yeltsin asked, screwing up the features of his face.

"About God. About the Great," Mr. Medvedev urged.

"Yesterday for half the day I was thinking of nothing but God," the president said, referring to Russian Orthodox service he attended to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the icon of the Virgin of Vladimir being brought to Moscow.

Then, he said, he rushed across town to the baptism of his grandson, arriving just in time to intercede "so that, God forbid, they wouldn't give him the wrong name without me."

Apparently Mr. Yeltsin's son wanted to name the baby Georgy. But Mr. Yeltsin commanded that the baby be named Gleb. "That's it, and that's the end to the matter," Mr. Yeltsin declared, with tinges of old Soviet style.

When asked about the government's failure to solve the murders of prominent Russian businessmen, Mr. Yeltsin lashed out at his prosecutor general, Alexei Ilyushenko.

'I will hardly bring myself to again recommend him for the post," he said. "Unfortunately, he will learn about it from your reports."

Mr. Yeltsin seemed particularly galled when asked whether Russia would help the Serbs with weapons if NATO continued its bombing campaign to break the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo. "If these actions continue, we'll see," he said.

He went on to criticize U.S. influence over Western Europe: "Why they allow themselves to be dictated [to] from beyond the ocean? Why don't the Europeans themselves resolve this problem? That's why I am against NATO's enlargement. This is the first sign of what can happen.

"When NATO approaches the borders of the Russian Federation, you can say that there will be two military blocs," he said.

Recent efforts by Mr. Yeltsin to mediate the Balkan crisis have been designed to make him look like a strong leader at home, said Dmitri Trenin, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Europe.

"It's a clear indication the president wants to run in 1996. And I think he's on the campaign trail already," Mr. Trenin said. "The average Russian doesn't care about the Balkans, but the average citizen is not impartial to the image of our country as an international player . . . or to the image of a strong presidential leader."

With his hour and a half at the hands of the press behind him, Mr. Yeltsin is now scheduled to take a 10-day vacation to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

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