Time to rest, reflect and regret

SUN JOURNAL

Yeltsin: As Russia's first president settles into retirement, his quiet time is split between special visits and considering missteps -- such as the Chechen conflict.

March 11, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The village of Gorky-9 isn't Chappaqua, N.Y., but in most other respects Boris N. Yeltsin should be finding life as an ex-president to be considerably easier than Bill Clinton is.

For all the scorn that was heaped on both men while in office - and Yeltsin got more of it than Clinton did - the controversies surrounding Russia's first president swirled away as soon as he stepped down, on New Year's Eve a year ago.

Clinton wanted office space in Manhattan for $750,000 a year, and had to back down in the face of outrage at the expense. Yeltsin's upkeep reportedly costs the Russian government $1.5 million a year, and no one's complaining.

Clinton has been taking the heat for his last-minute pardons. Yeltsin didn't pardon anyone when he left office - but he accepted with alacrity the immunity from prosecution granted to him by his chosen successor, Vladimir V. Putin.

Clinton has to adjust to the role of senator's husband, in a marriage that he seriously put to the test during the Monica Lewinsky interlude. Yeltsin is doted on by his large extended family at their temporary home just outside Moscow, while they await renovations on a state-owned country house in nearby Borvikha.

Reports of coma

All would be smooth for Yeltsin - except that his health has failed him once more. In late January he went into the hospital with the flu, and stayed there after it became pneumonia. Doctors say he's on the mend and will soon be on his way home - but his repeated hospitalizations have left Yeltsin a feebler, diminished man.

Some reports have suggested that he lapsed into a coma this time, but his aides dismiss those reports.

"I must deny again the rumors that Boris Yeltsin's state of health has deteriorated," his protocol chief, Vladimir Shevchenko, told the Itar-Tass news agency last week.

Yeltsin, who turned 70 in February, is already 11 years past the average life expectancy of Russian men. As president, he endured some extended hospital stays, for heart bypass surgery and an earlier bout of pneumonia, among other afflictions, and always accompanied by dire rumors.

He is the first leader in Russian history who neither died in office nor was forced from his post. (Yeltsin's considerably more robust contemporary, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, lost his own position when the country he led, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist.)

Yeltsin likes to be referred to as the First President, but he's also the first ex-president. As such, he has more or less been creating the role as he has gone along.

"I am learning," he told an interviewer with Komosomolskaya Pravda in December, "to look around. To be able to give some advice, and not demand an answer."

He is not, emphatically, a power behind the throne. He meets from time to time with Putin - once or twice a month, Yeltsin says - but no one pretends he's calling any of the shots. Several of the key figures in Yeltsin's second term of office have been pushed aside. His daughter and closest adviser, Tatyana Dyachenko, is with him in retirement; Boris Berezovsky, the financial manipulator, is abroad, avoiding an arrest warrant; the former Kremlin property manager, Pavel Borodin, is in jail in New York, fighting extradition to Switzerland on bribery charges.

But neither is Yeltsin exactly living in disgrace.

The rich and the powerful do pay their respects. Since leaving office, Yeltsin has met with Clinton and with Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor of Germany. Video clips of their meetings remind viewers that these men, if not the Big Three of international politics in the 1990s, were certainly the Large Three. It was a bear-hug era, one that Putin and George W. Bush are unlikely to reprise.

Yeltsin oversaw the ghostwriting of the third volume of his memoirs, called "Midnight Diaries" in English, and went to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany last year to promote it.

Conflicting statements

"A sharp, unexpected, aggressive move always throws your opponent off balance and disarms him, especially if it is unpredictable and seems absolutely illogical," the book has Yeltsin saying. He often governed that way. There is some evidence to suggest that the Putin administration has been striving to put that particular tendency out to pasture.

"Midnight Diaries," published last fall, was written by Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin's former chief-of-staff and the author of his two previous books. Reviewers have pointed out that it has none of the anecdotal, earthy touches that marked its predecessors - and that are typical of Yeltsin's personality. There have been reports that "Midnight Diaries" was rewritten by the current Kremlin chief-of-staff, Alexander Voloshin, who presumably smoothed out all the bumps.

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