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Monday, May 10, 1999 Published at 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK

World: Europe

Yeltsin keeps his aides guessing

An aide waits for another Mr Yeltsin slip-up

By Russian Affairs Analyst Stephen Dalziel

News of President Boris Yeltsin's latest gaffe slipped out over the weekend.

Apparently, on Thursday evening he was handing out awards at a ceremony in the Kremlin, when he started to say something about the war in Yugoslavia.

He spluttered out words to the effect that if President Bill Clinton were to cause some sort of accident, Russia would "send a missile".

In the light of Nato's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade a day later, Mr Yeltsin's words suddenly took on a new significance.

The speed with which Mr Yeltsin's press spokesman, Dmitry Yakushkin, moved, suggested that the president's outburst should not be taken as a new policy statement.

He asked Russian TV journalists not to use the clip in their reports, and the journalists - from three separate channels - complied.

The US network, NBC, did use it, but only in a report on the state of Mr Yeltsin's health.

When to leap in

Mr Yakushkin's speed of action illustrates that he has learnt the single most important lesson in being press secretary to the Russian president: know when to leap in to save the president from himself.

[ image: Alcohol has been blamed for gaffes in the past]
Alcohol has been blamed for gaffes in the past
Over the years - and especially since his heart attack and subsequent heart by-pass surgery in 1996 - Mr Yeltsin has dropped a number of clangers.

In October 1994, on a flight back to Moscow from the USA, Mr Yeltsin failed to leave the plane at Shannon Airport for a scheduled meeting with the Irish president.

After an embarrassing 15-minute wait, his aides emerged to apologise.

"Sorry - he's ill", they said. "No I wasn't!" said a defiant Yeltsin when he returned to Moscow a few hours later. "They didn't wake me!"

The generally accepted version was that Mr Yeltsin had been too drunk to get off the plane.

This was just one of a number of such incidents believed to be drink-related.

But the more recent gaffes have been even more worrying for Mr Yeltsin's team. Drink no longer appears to be the cause.

The president seems to be showing signs of simply not being aware of the reality around him.

Aides on tenterhooks

Ever since he stumbled whilst standing to attention at a ceremony in Uzbekistan last autumn, presidential aides have been on tenterhooks whenever Mr Yeltsin makes a personal appearance.

His features are puffed up, his voice is slurred, and he needed physical support once again when attending a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Shortly after the bombing of Yugoslavia began, President Yeltsin threatened that Nato could be starting World War III.

His Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was quick to point out that, in fact, Russia had no intention of becoming involved militarily in the Yugoslav conflict.

Now Mr Yeltsin appears to have done it again. It seems to have got to the stage that little attention should be paid to the Russian president's utterings, until those close to him have explained what he really means.

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