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Leaner Yeltsin Poised For Presidential Campaign

Prague, Jan. 4 (RFE/RL) - He's fitter and leaner, and as he regains his place in the Kremlin, Russian President Boris Yeltsin seems more like a battle-ready fighter than the ailing war-horse people had come to recognize. At least that is the image Yeltsin has been trying to project in the past week.

Yeltsin returned to the Kremlin last Friday for the first time in more than two months after collapsing from a heart ailment that many predicted would kill his political career. But a prolonged stay in Moscow's Central Clinic and the Barvikha sanatorium - away from the tumult of parliamentary elections and Kremlin intrigue, seems to have had a rejuvenating effect. Yeltsin's characteristic puffiness is gone as is his stiff gait - but more importantly, the Russian president now has a new sense of purpose.

With presidential elections just over five months away, Yeltsin has still not announced whether he will seek a second term. But after the embarrassing showing of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's "Our Home Is Russia" party in the December parliamentary poll - and the resurgence of the Communists - the president looks as if he will have little choice but to run. And those who were discounting his chances just a month ago are now reassessing.

Yeltsin is famous for thriving in battle and he has acquired a reputation as a comeback artist. There is no question that his approval ratings stand at an all-time low. But in politician-wary Russia, where all potential presidential candidates have ratings in the single digits, Yeltsin will not have to win massive popular support in order to regain his seat. And while he is not yet a candidate, he has already begun to behave like one.

In his New Year's address to the nation, Yeltsin announced a war on corruption and inefficient bureaucrats. He pledged to raise pensions and repay overdue wages. Borrowing from the Communists' vocabulary, Yeltsin blasted "saboteurs" for slowing economic growth and said Russians should remember they are citizens of a great and free country. Without mentioning Chechnya specifically, Yeltsin greeted soldiers "carrying out their duty" and he promised to work for the quick return home of all of those serving their country abroad.

The day before, Yeltsin's vigorous tone at a Kremlin New Year's eve banquet contrasted markedly with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's stony-faced expression. Yeltsin vowed to continue with economic reforms and warned Russia would end up once again in a "dead-end" if Communism were restored.

Meanwhile, government reshuffles are underway. The strategy is an old one: a few ministers will take the fall and Chernomyrdin will get part of the blame for any policy failures. That will leave Yeltsin free to launch his campaign and rise above the petty bickering that is certain to grow among the parties in the months ahead. Yeltsin is hoping that as under Stalin and the Czars, Russians will blame the country's problems on local administrators and bureaucrats while saving their respect for their leader.

But that may be too much to hope for. Yeltsin's success will largely depend on the weakness of the opposition. If the Communists party splits between moderates and hard-liners, for instance, as some analysts expect, that will help Yeltsin. But whatever happens, no one expects Yeltsin to win an outright victory in the first round of voting on June 16. In that case, however, currently disunited reformists would likely shift their support to the president in the second round. This might provide Yeltsin with the critical backing that Chernomyrdin's party failed to garner in the single-round of recent legislative balloting.

Perhaps the most critical question in the medium term is the question of Yeltsin's health. Even if Yeltsin manages to stay healthy until the elections, his prognosis over the next five years is in doubt. As Scott Parish, a Russia analyst at the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute, noted: "Yeltsin is a 64-year-old man with a heart problem in a country with an average male life expectancy of 57." If Yeltsin were to become incapacitated, the prime minister would take over temporarily, but he would not be entitled by the constitution to complete the president's term. New elections would have to be called - throwing Russia into more tumultuous times.