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Russia: Analysis -- Kremlin Denies Latest Rumors Of Yeltsin's Ill Health

Moscow, 16 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Rumors concerning Kremlin officials, their fortunes, friends and dealings are a fact of everyday life in Moscow. Market traders and Kremlin watchers have grown cool-blooded about them. However, stock market traders and economic analysts agree that one of the main sources of concern that can really shake the markets -- in a country where the presidency is undoubtedly the main power institution -- is a health problem for President Boris Yeltsin

Since his re-election in 1996, Yeltsin, 67, has spent long periods away from the Kremlin due to serious health problems. He spent a week at a Moscow residence last month suffering from a respiratory infection. He resumed a busy schedule after his last illness and sacked the entire government upon his return to the Kremlin.

Yesterday, the Kremlin surprised observers, when presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky suddenly issued a firm denial concerning a rumor that the major Russian news agencies had not even reported. Yastrzhembsky said a rumor spreading in Moscow that Yeltsin had again been taken to the hospital on the eve of an upcoming trip to Japan was "absolute nonsense." He urged journalists not to react to rumors of this kind and added that they are aimed at "aggravating the country's domestic political situation."

Yastrzhembsky said Yeltsin had spent the day at a Moscow-area residence where he was "studying documents" ahead of the April 17-19 meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. According to Yastrzhembsky, Kremlin doctors approve of Yeltsin's visit "150 percent," despite the ten-hour flight to Tokyo.

Later in the day, Yeltsin's controversial nominee as new prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, also denied the rumor, saying he had spoken to Yeltsin several times by telephone in the last two days and that Yeltsin's "energetic" tone indicated his health is robust.

And finally, Yeltsin today felt it necessary to deny the rumors in person. In a televised interview, a healthy-looking and rather amused Yeltsin said that, yes, yesterday he had been visiting a Kremlin clinic, but only for a dental check-up. Yeltsin, surrounded by his top aides, added that he "has never felt healthier."

Yeltsin is currently involved in a political fight with the Communist and nationalist-dominated State Duma over Kiriyenko's nomination. A second round of voting is scheduled Friday. Kiriyenko's candidacy was rejected last Friday, but Yeltsin immediately re-nominated him, refusing to negotiate on a different candidate with Duma representatives.

Russian media today said that parliamentary deputies were seriously concerned yesterday about the state of Yeltsin's health, while everybody was trying to understand which reports had prompted the sudden and vigorous Kremlin statements. It was not immediately clear yesterday which news organizations have been carrying the report claiming Yeltsin had been hospitalized. Yastrzhembsky did not elaborate on the subject when he denied the report. Russia's main news agencies had not mentioned it.

Today, the daily "Russky Telegraf" quoted unnamed Kremlin officials as saying that they had learned of the rumors from media representatives calling the Kremlin press-office for confirmation. The officials said the rumor about Yeltsin was first reported by the Otkrytoe Radio station and a little-known radio station attached to the news agency National Information Service (NSN).

Otkrytoe Radio's finances are reported linked to natural gas giant Gazprom, and NSN is controlled by SBS-Agro Bank. The Bank's president, Aleksandr Smolensky, is a business associate of tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

There are no reports linking the rumors concerning Yeltsin's health to Berezovsky, the business-tycoon and self-styled Kremlin insider. However, in a curious coincidence, several Moscow dailies yesterday reported that Yeltsin has warned Berezovsky that he might "drive him (Berezovsky) out of the country" if the tycoon does not stop trying to influence the formation of the government behind the scenes. The influential daily "Kommersant" quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying that Yeltsin's outburst took place during a telephone conversation with Berezovsky Monday.

According to the official, during a meeting with a group of cosmonauts that day, Yeltsin announced that he had issued Berezovsky the warning. Presidential spokesman Yastrzhembsky and Presidential Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev were reported to have urged all present not to report Yeltsin's remarks, but the story leaked anyway. Apart from "Kommersant-Daily," two other newspapers of different political orientation published similar accounts yesterday.

According to most observers, Berezovsky, a key financial backer of Yeltsin's re-election campaign in 1996, has tried to have the acting deputy prime minister responsible for CIS affairs, Ivan Rybkin, nominated as prime minister instead of Kiriyenko.

Berezovsky and Rybkin became close when Berezovsky worked for Rybkin last year on Russia's Security Council. Rybkin said this week that "representatives of the financial, industrial and banking sector should work in CIS executive structures." Most observers said that Rybkin was probably suggesting that Berezovsky should soon be again given an official position.

Berezovsky told the Interfax news agency that private capital "is the only cementing force" suitable to consolidate the difficult relation among CIS members states. However, he added that nobody had proposed he again take a government job.

Kiriyenko, though little-known, has a reputation for independence and is not believed to be particularly close to any of Russia's so-called "oligarchs," who have been heavily influencing Russia's policies. In his previous cabinet post, as fuel and energy minister, he helped set the terms for the upcoming auction of the big state-owned oil company Rosneft, one of the most anticipated and controversial privatization deals of the year. Observers have said that the terms of the Rosneft auction do not favor Berezovsky and his allies' business interests.

In recent interviews, Kiriyenko made clear that he was doing his best to resist pressure from unspecified big businesses to change the terms of the Rosneft auction. He said that "a careful offer of help comes from somewhere one day. I ignore it and the next day some newspapers change their stance concerning me and the prospects of the next government."

Since the March 23 government shake-up, media outlets controlled by Berezovsky have taken a very critical stance on Yeltsin's decision to dismiss the government, led by Viktor Chernomyrdin, and to back Kiriyenko's candidacy.

After his ousting, Chernomyrdin declared his intention to stand as a candidate in the 2000 presidential election, and Berezovsky recently said Russian business should support the candidacy.

Interestingly, Berezovsky himself praised Yeltsin's decision to fire the government last month, and, this month, praised Kiriyenko, saying Yeltsin made "the right choice" by appointing him.

The on-going battle of words and rumors seem to provide enough reasons to explain the Yeltsin-Berezovsky rift. But, according to "Kommersant," Yeltsin's wife, Naina, has also expressed concern about Berezovsky's claims that he advises close presidential aides. Several political observers today note that one of the presidential advisors reported to be closest to Berezovsky, Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, has not publicly intervened in the last outburst of rumors, and that Berezovsky should not be written off hastily from Russia's troubled political scene.

More developments, and even more rumors, are certainly in the making, while Russia's latest political crisis goes on.