Yeltsin Is Back at His Office, `Ready for Battle'By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 24 1996; Page A07
Russian President Boris Yeltsin returned to the Kremlin today after months of hospitalization and a heart operation, but he offered few clues to his plans for a second term that so far has been marked by drift and infighting.
"I'm ready for battle," he declared, alighting from his limousine inside the Kremlin walls, where he was met with a ceremonial salute by a military commandant who assured him that all was normal inside the historic Moscow fortress.
Outside the walls, however, Russia's problems are readily apparent. The government has been in a long, slow slide for months, unable to meet its basic financial obligations to soldiers, pensioners and workers. Yeltsin promised to tackle these problems as his top priority next year.
The president wore a coat, scarf and fur hat against the near-zero temperatures, and he looked as if he had lost weight since the Nov. 5 quintuple heart-bypass operation. Doctors have said it could take another month for him to return to full strength; nonetheless, aides were at pains to play up the ceremonial and symbolic aspects of his return, which he announced in a stilted videotaped statement Friday from a hunting lodge near Moscow.
There have been hints from Kremlin officials that Yeltsin will soon announce some sweeping decisions, but so far little of their substance has been disclosed.
His chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, told reporters over the weekend that Yeltsin's absence from the seat of power was one of the most difficult periods in recent Russian history, a period that included what he described as a grave budget crisis in September and October. Largely as a result of Yeltsin's reelection campaign, tax revenue plummeted and the International Monetary Fund temporarily suspended its three-year loan program, although it has been partially resumed since then.
Yeltsin is scheduled to chair a meeting of the government's emergency commission on tax collection, Chubais said, suggesting that his presence means some important decisions would be made. "To put it bluntly, there was some slackening off in some places," Chubais added, saying that Yeltsin would take a "tough line." He did not say against whom.
With what seemed to be a wishful sigh, Chubais said that with Yeltsin back at the Kremlin, there might be fewer critical references to him as the "regent" or the power behind the throne. "It is now clear to everyone that this is all nonsense, destined to fall away of itself," he said, adding that it would be tossed aside like so much peel from an orange.
Chubais said Yeltsin "is in vigorous working condition, in a mood for energetic work." In his first day back, Yeltsin met with aides for several hours. He also telephoned British Prime Minister John Major, arranged for him to visit Moscow and also thanked him for "the increase in the volume of guaranteed loans" to Russia, presidential press aides said.
Yeltsin drew brickbats once again from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whom Yeltsin defeated in the presidential election in July. Zyuganov has repeatedly criticized Yeltsin as infirm and weak, but the Communist leader has been more cooperative with the government lately, voting to support the latest budget draft in the lower house of parliament.
"Yeltsin is in no condition to resolve even a single issue facing Russia," Zyuganov said today. "Even when he was very healthy, he did not address a single issue facing Russia."
"The leader . . . needs to work 15 hours a day, every day without days off," he added. "He should always be at the captain's station to make decisive decisions."