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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin's Drinking Stirs Debate in Press

President Boris Yeltsin's well-known, if rarely acknowledged predilection for alcohol, is drawing more and more concern in the Russian press, with some of his most loyal supporters expressing alarm over his recent antics in Germany and Ireland.


"Believe me, Boris Nikolayevich, your fondness for liquor is a secret only to yourself," Yegor Yakovlev, editor-in-chief of the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta and a Yeltsin loyalist, wrote in his paper's latest edition.


It was the latest in a series of press articles indicating a change in the traditional Russian tolerance of drinking even among high-ranking officials and that the issue is gaining a smoldering importance.


Yakovlev, formerly editor of Moskovskiye Novosti and one of the few publications to support Yeltsin when he was in political disgrace, said he was breaking his silence on the matter with regret to urge the president to change his ways.


"I did not expect, I confess, that I would write these lines addressed to you, Boris Nikolayevich. But the strangeness of your behavior with every day is showing you up more and more," Yakovlev said.


When Yeltsin failed to get off his plane at Shannon airport in Ireland last month, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, who came down to meet Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, said first that the president was ill.


But on arriving back in Moscow an apparently healthy Yeltsin said that he had "overslept" and not been woken by his guards. He then sent a letter of apology to Reynolds, blaming an "annoying mix-up" for their failure to meet.


According to Irish Times reporter Arthur Quinlan, who covered Yeltsin's non-visit, the plane circled for almost an hour over County Clare before landing at Shannon Airport, something which he said was "very unusual" in years of covering the airport.


"I met President Yeltsin in 1991 at Shannon," Quinlan said. "He had two pints of Guinness and enjoyed it very much. We were looking forward to seeing him again."


A cartoon in the Irish Times showed a vodka bottle rolling down the steps of the airplane with the caption "At last ... a message from President Boris Yeltsin."


To many Russians a drinking habit is a forgivable peccadillo or even an asset. Yeltsin has never denied he likes a drink of vodka but his spokesmen say it has never affected his capacity to work.


"In our country a fondness for the green serpent (drink) has never been considered a shameful sin, but, on the contrary has been considered a sign of youthfulness," Alexei Kirpichnikov wrote in the daily Segodnya last week.


But in recent days the tone of coverage in the Russian media suggests attitudes are changing. Official Russian television has remained cautious, but independent NTV television showed pictures of Yeltsin in his impromptu performance as band conductor in Germany and confessing to having overslept after returning from Ireland.


"We were acting from strictly professional principles. If events happen, we have to show them" said Oleg Dobrodeyev, NTV's chief editor in an interview. "We absolutely do not know what happened," he added. "We are not drawing conclusions, we just capture the situation."


The press has been more outspoken. The pro-Yeltsin paper Izvestia broke ranks to criticize the president's behavior in Germany, while Russia's most impudent daily, Moskovsky Komsomolets, ran an article last Tuesday entitled: "What has the president slept through: Ireland or his prestige?"


A new advertisement for the paper shows Yeltsin sitting upright on a plane full of sleeping bodies with the caption "You won't fall asleep with us!"


Yakovlev's article, the most detailed and impassioned so far, argued that the political fallout of the president's erratic behavior could be dangerous. He said it was fostering the abuse of power by Kremlin aides: "Those close to you, Boris Nikolayevich, get away with a lot. Why? Because they know a lot."


The otherwise demoralized opposition to Yeltsin has used the issue to bait the president. Last week Viktor Ilyukhin, a communist deputy in the State Duma, said Yeltsin was an alcoholic and called for a medical commission to be set up to investigate his health. Vladimir Isakov, another communist legislator, made a similar proposal after Yeltsin addressed the Ninth Congress of People's Deputies in March 1993, looking dishevelled and sounding slurred.


Yakovlev recounted two incidents when he said Yeltsin had drunk too much. At the first, a Commonwealth of Independent States summit, he said the president's press secretary rushed around begging the television crews to switch off their cameras and saying "God forbid they should record Yeltsin looking like that."


On another occasion, when Yeltsin was due to fly back from Almaty to Moscow on the eve of the August 1991 attempted coup, Yakovlev said he was "untransportable."