Boris Yeltsin provoked fresh concerns about his health yesterday by abruptly postponing a meeting with Al Gore, the US Vice-President. The Russian president then appeared to show he was in full control and functioning normally by announcing a big shake-up of his administration.
The Kremlin stunned Mr Gore and his White House entourage by declaring at the last minute that Mr Yeltsin would not see the Vice-President until today because he had decided to take a holiday.
Mr Yeltsin, 65, who has a history of heart trouble, disappeared from public view on 26 June, resurfacing only in pre-recorded television appearances, despite being re-elected in momentous style on 3 July.
The line from official sources has varied. The President has been suffering from either a cold or a sore throat, or was simply in need of a rest after his gruelling election campaign.
Mr Gore was clearly flabbergasted by the postponement, which broke all protocol rules and was announced after a large group of US officials and reporters had already arrived at the Kremlin. He may also have been shocked by the casual way in which Mr Yeltsin's aides treated the extraordinary affair.
Sergei Medvedev, his press secretary, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying: "It is the most convenient time to rest and restore his health after a tense election campaign, more so because the weather in the Moscow region is good for this now."
This explanation seemed almost flippant in the light of the treatment of Mr Gore, and it gave rise to speculation that, in avoiding the Vice-President for a day, Mr Yeltsin was expressing disapproval at some aspects of US policy towards Russia.
It is believed that Mr Gore intends to raise two sensitive issues with Mr Yeltsin: the recent increase in Russian military campaigning in Chechnya, and Nato's determination to incorporate new members from central and eastern Europe.
However, from the US viewpoint, the meeting was always intended to be a friendly one, and Mr Gore is still expected to congratulate Mr Yeltsin on his re-election to a four-year term. Thus Mr Yeltsin's health and caprice remain the more likely reasons for the postponement. …