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As a Picture of Health, Yeltsin Is Presenting a Blurry Image


MOSCOW — A despondent government worker set himself on fire in front of a presidential administration building earlier this week to demand his unpaid wages. The man, whom police doused and took to a mental hospital, apparently was unaware that President Boris N. Yeltsin had not set foot there for weeks.

A viral infection sidelined the 66-year-old leader for two weeks in mid-December, and since then he is known to have journeyed into central Moscow from his constellation of country houses only twice.

When aides earlier this week cleared Yeltsin's public events calendar for the rest of the month, canceling a Jan. 19 visit to India and a meeting with other former Soviet republic presidents four days later, Kremlin watchers became concerned anew that Yeltsin may be more ill than his handlers are conceding.

A taped television address to the nation aired on the eve of Wednesday's Orthodox Christmas observance showed a pale Yeltsin struggling to articulate his simple message celebrating Russia's newfound freedom of conscience. At least six splices were obvious in the five-minute tape.

The head of the Kremlin press service, Alexei Gromov, declined to say when or where the Christmas address was recorded.

Yeltsin has been on vacation since Sunday at the northwestern forest retreat of Valdai, where daily reports emanate from his press service describing the Russian leader as physically active and engaged in the affairs of state.

Unlike the White House, which allows small groups of journalists to observe President Clinton's vacation activities for a few minutes each day, the Kremlin bars all independent press access to Yeltsin.

"Yeltsin is continuing his event-filled vacation at Valdai Lake," effused a press statement issued by the presidential administration to the Interfax news agency, saying Yeltsin was spending his time ice fishing, swimming and snowmobiling.

That not-to-worry spin by Kremlin image-makers is familiar to Russians. A year ago, when Yeltsin was hospitalized with double pneumonia only two months after undergoing quintuple bypass surgery, Kremlin spokesman Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky insisted throughout his absence that the president was running the country.

Before that, when Yeltsin suffered a third heart attack in little more than a year in July 1996, then-Press Secretary Sergei K. Medvedev distributed a photo purporting to show Yeltsin at work at his desk in a short-sleeved sport shirt. The photo was quickly identified as a file shot that was more than a year old.

Still, the dubious reports from afar about the leader's health appear successful in keeping the general public unruffled. Russian stocks surged this week when trading resumed after the four-day New Year's break, and currency reform that many had feared would trigger consumer panic has transpired with little fluster or fanfare.

The sheer weight of Russia's economic woes may explain why few Russians are wringing their hands over Yeltsin's absence: Millions of government workers have not been paid their December wages, feeding a popular sentiment that any change in leadership could hardly be worse.

Who would succeed Yeltsin if he were unable to complete his presidential term that runs through 2000 is still this country's most perplexing question.

"He's not at full speed, and I doubt we will see him there again," Andrei V. Kortunov, head of the Russian Science Foundation, said of Yeltsin. "But it doesn't seem to influence how the country is running."

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