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Mike Williams reports for BBC News
"Mr Yeltsin has been in and out of hospital many times over the years"
 real 28k

Friday, 26 November, 1999, 15:47 GMT
Analysis: What's behind Yeltsin's illness?
Boris Yeltsin Mr Yeltsin: Some say his illness is too convenient

By Russian affairs specialist Malcolm Haslett

Boris Yeltsin has yet again fallen ill and had to postpone engagements - this time the ceremonial signing of a Union Treaty with Belarus.

So was this a routine sign of the president's failing health, or was it, as some observers are suggesting, a ''political illness''?

There are various theories about what actually happened on Thursday in the Kremlin.

Russia crisis
One version, carried by the Russian daily Sevodnya, is that after Boris Yeltsin arrived at the Kremlin, Prime Minister Putin broke off a cabinet meeting and took his senior ministers to the president's office for a two-hour meeting.

After the meeting President Yeltsin felt ill and went back to his dacha outside Moscow.

Premier Putin meanwhile, it's said, phoned President Lukashenko of Belarus to tell him Mr Yeltsin had a ''viral infection'' and that the treaty signing was postponed.

yeltsin at osce summit Mr Yeltsin shows the strain in Istanbul
If this version is accurate it is alarming, to say the least. Again, however, there are several theories about what was said at the meeting which caused Yeltsin's "illness".

Some observers point out that Boris Yeltsin has genuinely fallen ill some days after returning from a foreign trip on several occasions - last week he went to Istanbul for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit.

The ailing president, it is said, just can't take the strain of such trips any more. But others are suggesting a more political reason for the illness.

Cold feet

Supporters of the treaty with Belarus are accusing Mr Yeltsin and his aides of suddenly getting cold feet about certain of its clauses: Notably its reference to a Union State, Soyuznoye Gosudarstvo, and its pledge to hold elections for a united parliament within six months.

Others are suggesting that the president's advisers thought that a signing at this point, three weeks before important parliamentary elections in Russia, would boost the administration's Communist and nationalist critics in that vote.

But some analysts think it is not so much to do with Belarus as with Chechnya.

Their theory is that Mr Putin and the generals, anxious to push the Chechen war through to a successful conclusion, were pressuring President Yeltsin to let them launch an assault on the Chechen capital Grozny.

Avoiding blame?

If this were true then his sudden illness could be interpreted in a number of ways: Either that he really was taken ill after a heated argument, or that he himself has chosen to be ill and out of sight, as he was for much of the first Chechen war, so as not to take the blame for the inevitable bloodshed.

chechnya soldiers Has Mr Yeltsin been sidelined over Chechnya?
Another possible interpretation would be that the generals and Prime Minister Putin have, in effect, pushed the president into the background so that they can go ahead as they please.

Whichever version one chooses, one thing is clear: President Yeltsin and his state of health are important factors in what is happening in Russia.

Vladimir Putin and the military leaders seem very much in the ascendant. About the only person with the power - theoretical or real - to curb or control their actions is Boris Yeltsin. If he cannot or will not do that, it is serious for everyone.

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See also:
09 Oct 99 |  Russia crisis
Yeltsin's health record
30 Sep 99 |  Europe
The uncertain world of Boris Yeltsin
17 Sep 99 |  Europe
Russia's leaders: The race for the Kremlin

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