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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Upstaged In Speech To Nation

Speaking with vigor and decisiveness to an utterly indifferent Kremlin audience, President Boris Yeltsin said a main task before Russia today was to guarantee free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.

The 18-minute speech, delivered in a steady voice by a Yeltsin who looked as healthy as he has in years, also touched on matters ranging from the crisis in Kosovo to the type of economy Russia needs to the successes and failures of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

But if in past years the state-of-the-nation speech was a major event, one that influenced international financial markets and set the tone and agenda for domestic political debate, this year no one cared.

The markets ignored the speech. Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov was caught sniggering at part of it on television. A spokeswoman for Grigory Yavlinsky said the Yabloko leader has not attended a Yeltsin annual address since 1995 because he thinks the speech is "useless."

This year's speech would have been of limited interest no matter what, as Yeltsin has been in and out of hospitals since October and less and less politically relevant. But it was that much more of a nonevent in the shadow of Primakov's high-profile peace mission to Belgrade.

Yeltsin has in recent months seemed jealous of Primakov's growing power, and he did take a mild slap at his prime minister in the speech. Without naming Primakov, he complained that "some people" were talking of jettisoning democratic elections for regional governors - a trial balloon Primakov floated last month.

"Some people are calling for the central authorities to appoint regional leaders," Yeltsin said.

"There is only one alternative - the arrival of new people to the Russian political scene. And we will do this by means of nationwide elections. ... We will not allow anybody to steal from the people their main right, the right to vote."

Yeltsin did offer guarded praise for Primakov for keeping Russia on the right path. But he also said that the country was at a final "fork in the road" where it must decisively choose reform or reaction.

"If we let our chance slip by again ... the gate to the future will slam shut forever," he warned. "This is understood both by the supporters of reform, as well as its sworn opponents. ... In the economy as before they are calling us toward a directive plan; in our work with the press, toward censorship; in international politics, a return to the Cold War."

"This is a program of revanche," he said. "There is only one alternative: the arrival of new people in the political corps."

Despite a fiery defense of market capitalism, Yeltsin threw a bone to the leftists, conceding that some of the economic principles favored by the Western financial institutions weren't sure-fire. "It is as senseless to use the planned economy as a scarecrow as it is to use monetarism as a panacea for all ills," he said.

Yeltsin criticized NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia, but said Russia would not allow itself to be dragged into a war by the conflict. And he said Russia should sort out its own house before getting involved in foreign problems.

"Russia's citizens are of course concerned about Yugoslavia, but are even more concerned about Russia," he said. "Our weight in the world arena depends on how we solve our problems at home."

Politicians in parliament gave Yeltsin mixed marks. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, a member of the Communist Party, was surprisingly favorable. Yeltsin is "through with illness" and ready to work. Seleznyov also suggested a Communist-backed drive to impeach Yeltsin in the Duma be dropped in light of Yugoslavia.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, also spoke highly of the speech, particularly of Yeltsin's emphasis on the need to bring "new, clean people" to power. Zhirinovsky said that means the LDPR.

Others were harsher. Alexander Lebed, governor of Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region, said, "The same record was playing. ... I heard nothing new." Zyuganov echoed that, telling Interfax, "It's the same old song."

Yabloko approved of Yeltsin's rededication to market economic principles, said Duma Deputy Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the faction, and of his pledge to keep Russia out of the war in the Balkans. But he added, "What's said and written always seems right, then at the end of the year it turns out nothing was fulfilled."

It was Yeltsin's fifth go at the ritual speech. It had been delayed once, and up until the last minute there were rumors that it might be delayed again - which would have been consistent with a year that saw Yeltsin disappear into the hospital with a recurring ulcer, then storm out amid rumors to fire a few Kremlin functionaries, then disappear again.

But if he has been erratic lately, on Tuesday he was in robust form. He spoke in a loud, clear voice and walked easily. Wearing large gold-rimmed spectacles, he stuck closely to a text his advisors prepared for him - Oleg Sysuyev, a Kremlin political aide who led the speech-writing effort, said in an interview afterwards that Yeltsin strayed only once, though he coyly would not say where.