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Russia: In Amman, Yeltsin Tries to Reaffirm His Role

Moscow, 8 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin made a surprise trip to Amman today to join many world leaders for the state funeral of Jordan's King Hussein.

Television footage showed Yeltsin moving stiffly down the steps of the plane that brought him and the rest of the Russian delegation to Jordan. The puffy-faced Yeltsin, who is recovering from a bleeding ulcer, carefully descended the stairs with the help of his wife, Naina. The President, who left hospital just over a week ago, then walked unassisted along the tarmac. But Yeltsin later cut short his Amman visit, leaving for the airport while most foreign dignitaries were still paying their respects to the late king.

Some observers say Yeltsin's decision to attend the funeral against doctors' orders shows he wanted to prove he is recovering and is fully able to carry out his duties. The trip is Yeltsin's first abroad since an aborted Central Asian visit last fall.

Since September, when he appointed Yevgeny Primakov as Russia's Prime Minister, Yeltsin has increasingly transferred to him the day-to-day running of the country. Primakov, a former diplomat and high KGB official, has frequently replaced Yeltsin on state visits and had been expected to lead the Russian delegation to Hussein's funeral. But with his surprise trip to Amman, Yeltsin clearly stole the limelight from Primakov, who is also a Middle East specialist.

The trip also offered Yeltsin the chance to reaffirm Russia's role, however diminished, in the Middle East peace process. U.S. President Bill Clinton, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and nearly 40 other heads of state and government from around the world attended the funeral. Many of them were expected to hold informal talks on revitalizing the dormant peace process.

In the past several weeks, as Primakov moved to consolidate his grip on power, Russian media have reported the first signs of friction between the two men. Some Russian analysts say that Yeltsin's surprise trip today underlines his intention to stress his central role in Russia and on the international stage. According to Yevgeny Kiselev, the anchorman of NTV commercial television's "Itogi" program, Yeltsin "is reminding everyone that it is too early to rule him off."

But other analysts are more skeptical. Dmitry Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie think-tank in Moscow, told Reuters news agency that Yeltsin is trying to show that "he is the old Yeltsin." But, Trenin added, "this won't change anything in how the country is being run or the way the President is relevant for the country."

For the first time this year, Yeltsin last week showed up on three separate occasions at his Kremlin office. That fueled rumors in Moscow that Yeltsin would reshuffle the Government, as he has in the past after protracted illnesses. The rumors were also abetted by a Primakov proposal that both Yeltsin and the Russian parliament relinquish part of their powers in order to achieve a truce ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

The Kremlin has said it considers Primakov's proposal as a basis for discussion, and consultations among the Government, the President's office and parliamentary representatives are still in progress. Today, the Interfax news agency made public the text of a draft statement aimed at achieving political stabilization --apparently, a scaled-down version of Primakov's original proposal. But there is still no hard evidence of agreement among the three parties to the talks as to how to divide political power in Russia.