Insider's account of Yeltsin's 1996 illness Russian leader depressed, not interested in bid for re-election, ex-aide says

October 01, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Ill, sinking ever more deeply into depression over the war in Chechnya, President Boris N. Yeltsin told his chief of staff in 1995 and again in 1996 that he did not want to run for re-election.

This revelation from Sergei A. Filatov, who was one of Yeltsin's closest aides from 1993 to early 1996, offers the first insider description of Yeltsin wavering in his determination to seek a second term as president in the June 1996 election.

As the election approached, Yeltsin was in and out of the hospital, recovering from two heart attacks, Filatov recalled in an interview here this week. The Russian president's popularity ratings were dipping ever lower in the polls and Russian soldiers and civilians were dying in Chechnya, with no graceful end to the war in sight. And every day Russian political life was growing more tumultuous.

"Ever since 1990 we have been on the brink of civil war," said Filatov, a scientist who most Russians consider too genteel for the political life. "I think all this made his state of health very grave."

Filatov left the presidential administration in early 1996 to become deputy chairman of Yeltsin's re-election campaign. At the time, he and many other liberals were pressuring Yeltsin to run because they thought he was the only one capable of vanquishing the resurgent Communists.

"I couldn't imagine at the time who else could run," Filatov said.

When he finally acquiesced and officially announced his decision to run, Yeltsin sounded more like a draftee than a volunteer.

"In order to ensure the continuation of the course of reforms," he said, "it is necessary for me to stand for president at elections."

Once elected, in a runoff in July, Yeltsin began another long bout of illness and recovery. Only in the past week or so has the former, ebullient Yeltsin fully returned to the public eye.

He was more than his old self when he toured Oryol, in the fertile black earth region south of Moscow recently, and pleasantly informed welcoming crowds that he had accomplished as much for modern Russia as Peter the Great had accomplished for 18th century Russia.

"Call me Boris the First," he laughed.

"I'm not surprised," Filatov said of the new, invigorated Yeltsin. "I'm pleased. We all saw during the last year that his state of health was grave. Doctors, psychics, told us about this, and so did people who saw him on their television screens."

But while Yeltsin bounds around healthily, Russians have been eagerly snapping up a look at Yeltsin when he was at his purported worst -- the same period in which Filatov describes him as being in a state of deep depression.

A tell-all book called "From Dawn to Dusk," written by former Yeltsin aide and bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, has sold 600,000 copies.

Korzhakov was fired by Yeltsin in 1996 after reports that he and other hard-liners in the Kremlin were trying to cancel the final runoff election that Yeltsin won.

Korzhakov's book is full of photos that make Yeltsin look grotesque, his waist hanging well over a skimpy bathing suit, his face puffy, his gaze vacant.

The stories are equally biting, including one tale in which Yeltsin, in a fit of pique, orders his press secretary tossed off a boat into the waters of the Yenisei River in Siberia.

"You should take off those nice Italian shoes, they're expensive, and handmade," a Yeltsin aide told the press secretary, Vyacheslav Kostikov, who thought it was a joke, until his nice Italian shoes hit the water -- according to Korzhakov.

"I think it is a great shame for the country," Filatov said. "I don't intend to read it. I recently read a book written by Stalin's mistress. I was given it to read. There was such dirt in it I have no wish to read more."

The next presidential election is scheduled for 2000. Yeltsin says he will not run.

There are those who say he means just the opposite.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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