Yeltsin resurfaces, stiffly, in taped TV appearances Emerging after 4 days, he tell Russians to vote in tomorrow's runoff

July 02, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- After falling out of sight and missing several public appearances for four days in the critical homestretch of the presidential election campaign, President Boris N. Yeltsin resurfaced in two national television appearances yesterday.

Puffy-eyed and sitting stiffly at a desk, Yeltsin gave a two-minute speech urging Russians to vote in tomorrow's presidential runoff.

In separate footage, he was shown seated at the desk, talking with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin about the election.

Yesterday was the last day of public campaigning allowed under election law -- and the president's last chance to dispel growing concerns about his fitness for a second term.

In the past several years, Yeltsin has had a tendency to go into seclusion, claiming ill health. He has a reputation for heavy drinking.

Speaking in his first appearance since Wednesday, Yeltsin said in the broadcasts: "I know exactly what to do. I have the strength, will and decisiveness for that. What is needed now is your support."

It wasn't clear whether the appearances would calm or alarm the voting public.

As the pro-Yeltsin press has largely ignored the president's disappearance, many Russians seemingly had only a bare awareness of any speculation about his health.

"I heard he was sick -- someone mentioned it at the office," said 38-year-old economist Yelena Kurikova. "But it's probably not serious. I don't trust such information much anyway."

But the sight of Yeltsin sitting stiff and unanimated on television was such a contrast to his vigorous and healthy image during two months of campaigning that voters can't help but be somewhat suspicious.

Yesterday's appearances -- taped without press to question him -- had all the stilted earmarks of the Kremlin's efforts to publicly prop up the ailing president last year when mild heart attacks twice put the 65-year-old Yeltsin in the hospital.

Since Wednesday, aides have given standard Kremlin euphemisms -- "a cold," "laryngitis" and "working on documents" -- as excuses for Yeltsin's sudden disappearance after two months of nonstop campaign travel and appearances.

"Boris Nikolayevich has a cold, but his voice improved today," Chernomyrdin said at a news conference.

Asked whether Yeltsin might have suffered another heart attack, the prime minister replied: "I noticed no sign of any attack. The president grabbed my right hand in a handshake and nearly tore it off."

Yeltsin's Communist rival, Gennady A. Zyuganov, has seized on the president's health as a campaign issue and demanded an official medical report.

"We haven't seen Mr. Yeltsin for four days. I want to see the official conclusion on the state of health of Mr. Yeltsin," said Zyuganov, who trailed Yeltsin by 35 percent to 33 percent of the vote in last month's first round of presidential elections.

Opinion polls show Zyuganov trailing Yeltsin in tomorrow's runoff.

Yesterday, Yeltsin canceled a Kremlin meeting with the presidents of Ukraine and Moldova. On Sunday he missed a scheduled campaign appearance at a youth festival organized by the nation's most widely circulated newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets.

He canceled a meeting with farmers on Friday, and called off a short campaign trip early last week.

"I think he's sick," said Michael McFaul, an expert on the Russian electoral system at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Otherwise, they wouldn't be canceling all these things; this is a guy who is running for president.

"Even the official spin that he is working three hours a day, and just the way they're handling it with the set pieces [taped appearances] and not meeting with reporters or live audiences means there's definitely something wrong."

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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