He still travels with an entourage of 180 people, half of them security men. He still arrives in a cavalcade that includes three armored Zil limousines, dozens of backup vehicles, 1,100 pounds of Russian delicacies and three tons of communications equipment--much of it distinctly low-tech--plus doctor, nurse and chefs. And when Boris Yeltsin checks into a hotel, the management still takes care to leave him two bottles of iced vodka--one Absolut, one Stolichnaya.
Yeltsin, the new Russia's first ex-president, has shown since arriving in Jerusalem Wednesday evening that he is still traveling in the style of an active one. "He's not an ex-president; he's not a former president," his spokesman, Dmitri Yakushkin, explained with elaborate patience. "He's the first president of Russia, and he'll always be. It's a sign of respect and honor toward him."
The former--um, first--president is here on his first trip to the Holy Land. At the invitation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he came to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Friday, an event little noted in Soviet times that has gained new prominence in contemporary Russia.
In a decade at the top of Moscow's political heap, Yeltsin has often invented the post-Soviet order as he has seen fit. He devised for himself the position of Russian president, dusted off the pre-Soviet tricolor flag, pushed through a constitution tailor-made for his political tastes and, last week, bowed out in favor of his hand-picked protege, Vladimir Putin.
Now, it seems, Yeltsin is not through writing his own script. And unlike former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was stripped--by Yeltsin--of most perks of office when he lost power, Yeltsin seems intent on keeping them.
Apparently at the insistence of the Russians, Yeltsin was accorded all the pomp and perquisites of his former job. Arriving for lunch at the residence of Israeli President Ezer Weizmann, Yeltsin was greeted by an honor guard, trumpet fanfare, drum roll and red carpet. In a pre-meal toast, Weizmann hailed him "as the president of a great and powerful nation."
In Bethlehem, where Yeltsin met with Arafat later in the day, the welcome was equally lavish. As the two leaders put on a display of affection, Yeltsin recalled his strong support for a Palestinian state and said Putin shares his views.
Yeltsin flew to Israel in the official airplane he used as president. At the swanky Jerusalem Hilton, opened last year, he checked into the $2,500-a-night Rabin Suite on the ninth floor--a higher floor, Russian officials noted, than two current Eastern European heads of state also here for Orthodox Christmas.
No chances were being taken with his health. Downstairs, a specially equipped ambulance was on permanent call for Yeltsin, who has had several heart attacks. In the hotel kitchen, Israeli security agents kept an eye on the chefs as Yeltsin's food was prepared, then escorted the meals to his room. And the hotel was suitably apologetic that the 1,100 pounds of food flown in especially for Yeltsin and his entourage had to be refused at the door; it seems it wasn't kosher.
Nor were there any limits imposed on his entourage. In addition to the full complement of aides, officials and dignitaries that always travel abroad with Yeltsin, he was accompanied by the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov; his wife Naina; his daughters Tatyana and Alina and his granddaughter Masha. Little wonder, perhaps, that on arriving in the Holy Land, Yeltsin informed one and all that he felt "like a saint."
In public, Yeltsin appeared pale, puffy and heavily made-up. However, aides said he is still receiving daily briefings on events, and, characteristically, he was not shy about expressing himself on matters of state. Asked by a reporter about Russia's war against separatist rebels in Chechnya, he approached the questioner, grasped his hand in his own meaty paw, held it for a full minute and, in a slurred growl, delivered himself of an answer.
"It will last two more months, and then we will plant our Russian flag in Chechnya," he said. "This is the path the Chechen people have chosen. And then there will be complete peace."
In the morning, Yeltsin and six East European leaders converged at the Greek Patriarchate in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's walled Old City. Amid ornate chandeliers and lavish surroundings, they were awarded the Order of the Orthodox Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, the highest award of Orthodoxy.
Yeltsin spent most of his life as a member of the Soviet Communist Party, which preached atheism. But as Russia's president he presided over and supported the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he has attended services on occasion. His visit today thus was filled with symbolism, and he seemed to relish it.
Once awarded his order, a gold medal affixed to a lush red ribbon around his neck, Yeltsin made a brief speech in his rumbling baritone. "In the year 2000 of Christianity," he said, "I find myself in the Holy Land for the first time. I am glad to see that we have made our influence here felt. Of course, we are constantly troubled by the question of division of countries and churches."
Eastern Orthodoxy is divided into 15 churches, along ethnic and national lines, and the heads of 14 of them were assembled here today for the first Orthodox synod in Jerusalem.
After a short break and rest at his hotel, a feature built in throughout his schedule today, Yeltsin went to lunch with Weizmann. Seated between the Israeli president and former prime minister Shimon Peres--and across from former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, now the Israeli interior minister--the Russian toasted his hosts. He hailed "the flowering of Israel" and what he described as an end to antisemitism in Russia.
Later, in Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem, Yeltsin met with Arafat for an hour and told the Palestinian leader that Russia would support Arafat's main aspiration, the birth of a Palestinian state.
"He's enjoying himself; he's in a good mood," Yakushkin, the Russian spokesman, said of his boss. "He's brooding about the resignation; he's thinking about it. . . . You must understand. In Russia we are living for the first time through a lot of new things."