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Yeltsin Skips Campaign Events for 3rd Time in Week

Russia: His absence raises questions about his health. Aides issue videotape in effort to prove president is well.

June 29, 1996|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — President Boris N. Yeltsin's decision Friday to cancel appearances for the third time this week sparked so much speculation about his health in the homestretch of a reelection drive that aides released a videotape showing him with a June 28 calendar page--and at least breathing.

Yeltsin followed his top-place finish in the first round of the election with bold, decisive moves to capture voters, but for the last week he has failed to keep campaign appointments or take advantage of his monopoly on television air time.

A bout of bad health for the president would be his campaign staff's worst nightmare, as the 65-year-old Yeltsin could lose votes to Communist Party challenger Gennady A. Zyuganov if Russians are reminded of his questionable fitness to rule this troubled federation for the next four years.

But the silent tape, aired with the too-obvious calendar, and divergent explanations of his sudden low profile combined to create the impression that Yeltsin may be flagging as he approaches Wednesday's electoral finish line.

"I believe that the short rest Boris Nikolayevich will take will help him recover as soon as possible to hold the meetings planned," senior presidential aide Viktor V. Ilyushin told reporters at a hastily called news conference.

Since returning Sunday from the Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad, where he was visibly exhausted, Yeltsin has passed up all opportunities to close in for the campaign kill.

His political stock was soaring after he posted a 3-percentage-point advantage over Zyuganov in June 16 balloting. He swiftly recruited popular retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed onto his campaign team and probably won over liberal voters when he sacked the defense and security hawks who had long roosted in the Kremlin.

But trips to the nearby village of Maloyaroslavets on Monday and to the Tula region on Thursday were canceled, each with short notice. Yeltsin also failed to make an appearance when he urged Communists to vote for him in a written appeal Wednesday.

On Friday, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin delayed his departure for the important Group of 7 meeting with world leaders in France by several hours to take Yeltsin's place at an agricultural conference in the Kremlin.

Yeltsin campaign chief Sergei A. Filatov told journalists that the president had a sore throat, while Kremlin spokesman Sergei K. Medvedev said that Yeltsin was "in good form" and that his hoarseness was incurred from too many speeches and interviews.

One such interview that appeared prerecorded was shown repeatedly on state-run television after Yeltsin skipped the agricultural meeting, prompting rumors that he had fallen ill and his supporters were trying to hide it.

It was unclear when that earlier interview was recorded, but the tape with the prominently displayed calendar seemed intended to erase any doubts about his well-being.

"The ransom can be sent to the following address. . . ," a Western diplomat commented with black humor, likening the strange video clip to photos provided by kidnappers to prove they hold a live hostage.

Yeltsin suffered two heart attacks last year, in July and October, the later one keeping him out of the Kremlin for more than two months.

But after a disastrous hostage crisis and confrontation with Chechen gunmen in January, Yeltsin launched a dramatic reelection bid that saw him rise from the single-digit doldrums of popular support to ratings that regularly put him well above the 52-year-old Zyuganov.

Yeltsin's loss of steam for the second round of voting may go unnoticed among Russian voters, as the Communist challenger has been doing little to seize the initiative. Zyuganov has made no further forays onto the hustings and has limited his recent campaigning to rambling news conferences.

The between-rounds limelight has been grabbed almost exclusively by Lebed, the law-and-order champion who finished a strong third in the initial balloting, with 15% of the vote, behind Yeltsin's 35% and Zyuganov's 32%.

Some political observers speculate that the maverick general's visibility and Yeltsin's lack thereof may be a strategy to woo Lebed supporters who are skeptical that their ironfisted hero has real clout in the Kremlin.

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