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Illness Forces Yeltsin to Abruptly End Central Asia Trip

Russia: Aides deny medical 'emergency,' blame bronchitis for unsteady leader's return home.

October 13, 1998|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, walking unsteadily and appearing frail, abruptly cut short his first international trip in five months and returned to Moscow on Monday, suffering from what the Kremlin said was bronchitis.

Yeltsin, 67, whose poor health has kept him sidelined much of the time since his 1996 reelection, returned a day early from what was planned as a three-day trip to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The Kremlin insisted that the president's condition was not serious but that a cold he caught last week had been aggravated by plane travel.

"There is no emergency here," Dmitry D. Yakushkin, the president's press secretary, told reporters in Almaty, where Yeltsin met with Kazakh President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. "When you have a cold, you have to remain in bed."

Nevertheless, Yeltsin's illness and sudden return to Moscow highlighted his detachment from the day-to-day management of the government and efforts to solve Russia's continuing economic crisis.

Since the collapse of the Russian ruble in August and parliament's rejection of Yeltsin's first choice for a new prime minister, the president has seemed powerless to affect the course of events. He has spent most of the past few months out of the public eye at his country residence near Moscow.

Last week, 150,000 people gathered at a demonstration outside the walls of the Kremlin to call for his resignation. The lower house of parliament, the Duma, is slowly moving forward with impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin.

The president left Sunday for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, two Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union and remain close allies of Russia.

Television footage of his public appearances showed Yeltsin walking slowly and hesitantly, often with his wife or his host holding on to his arm. In Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, Yeltsin was standing at a welcoming ceremony when he started to fall over. Uzbek President Islam Karimov grabbed Yeltsin's arm to steady him as a bodyguard rushed forward.

At a signing ceremony with Karimov on Monday, Yeltsin had a coughing fit. Afterward, doctors convinced Yeltsin during the flight from Tashkent to Almaty that he should return to Moscow later in the day instead of staying over until today as planned, the Kremlin said.

Officials said Yeltsin was suffering from "tracheobronchitis" with a temperature of 99.3 degrees. He was taking antibiotics and other medicine, but doctors had no plans to hospitalize him, they said.

"The president is cutting short his visit, but there is no evidence to believe that the state of his health is any more serious than is reported," said Vladimir I. Derbenyov, deputy head of the presidential press service. "Like any normal person, the president is vulnerable to colds and other illnesses. So there is no need to exaggerate the situation and fan unnecessary rumors."

Yeltsin's last trip outside Russia was in May, when he traveled to Birmingham, England, for a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized nations.

The Kremlin said Yeltsin reluctantly agreed with the doctors that he should return to Moscow. But officials insisted that the president had carried out all the business meetings planned.

"The entire practical part of Boris Yeltsin's visit to Kazakhstan has been completed--everything went according to the protocol--and the president has signed all the agreements and held all the meetings he was planning to," Derbenyov said.

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