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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

March 5 Looms as Yeltsin's Big Test

President Boris Yeltsin on Thursday pinned a firm date of March 5 to his hotly anticipated annual address to parliament, but his opponents in parliament were again preparing to demand his resignation on health grounds.


The annual address has been widely identified as the single most important test that Yeltsin, recovering from heart bypass surgery and double pneumonia, will have to face in convincing political Moscow he is fit to rule.


The Kremlin originally said Yeltsin would speak to parliament in February, as he had done on three previous occasions.


Yeltsin, 66, announced the date shortly after meeting with his recently promoted crime-fighting chief Anatoly Kulikov for 40 minutes in the Kremlin. It was Yeltsin's seventh visit to the Kremlin since he fell ill with pneumonia Jan. 6.


After the meeting, Kulikov said the president had given him carte blanche in his campaign against economic crime and corruption, Interfax reported.


Brief silent footage aired on evening news broadcasts showed an at-ease Yeltsin lower house of parliament, put a watered-down bill to remove Yeltsin from power on its agenda for Friday's session, while Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov predicted a "completely new team" will soon be running the country.


Yeltsin will give a hint of what is to come March 5 when he addresses the nation by radio Friday morning. Such recorded messages were routine before his Nov. 5 bypass operation, but ended abruptly when Yeltsin was hospitalized with pneumonia in early January.


The president will discuss Russia's new relations with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, payments to pensioners, and "constitutional evolution" in Russia, Itar-Tass reported.


The Kremlin floated the idea of constitutional "evolution" two weeks ago, prompting speculation that Yeltsin was devising a plan to name his own successor.


The setting of a firm date for the annual address appears to have raised the ante in the Kremlin's campaign to show Yeltsin is on the mend.


To delay the speech again would likely prove extremely politically damaging to Yeltsin. He is also set to travel to Helsinki on March 20 for a summit with U.S. President Bill Clinton.


The opposition-dominated Duma is due Friday to discuss a resolution that would declare Yeltsin too sick to govern and recommend that he resign.


The Duma passed a similar resolution Jan. 22, only to reverse its decision minutes later in a second vote. The constitution gives parliament little judicial basis to impeach an ailing president.


Zyuganov, who lost to Yeltsin in last summer's runoff election, predicted an early change of leadership.


"Great changes are beginning in Russia and a completely new team will come to rule the country," he told a press conference.


Zyuganov said he has seen secret film footage of Yeltsin's meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that shows the president in looking very sick.


"Now I understand why it wasn't shown on television," Zyuganov said.


Kohl traveled to Moscow three days before Yeltsin was hospitalized with pneumonia.


Meanwhile, a Kremlin statement issued after Yeltsin's meeting with Kulikov Thursday said the president considers poor tax collection as one the country's biggest obstacles to economic reform.


Kulikov was promoted to the rank of deputy prime minister last Tuesday in charge of fighting economic crime and corruption. The tax police and customs authorities were put under his control.


While Kulikov's star has been on a steady rise, his conservative economic views and tough stance on Chechen independence have made him a target of bitter criticism in the Russian press.


Thursday's edition of the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta ridiculed Kulikov's record under the front page banner headline, "Criminals are becoming audacious, Kremlin appointments are growing more amusing."


Adding more bad news to already grim crime statistics, Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov told the Federation Council, parliament's upper chamber, that last year's official data quoting 2.6 million reported crimes represents a fraction of the true figure. The actual number of crimes is closer to 10 million, he said, with the difference going unreported.