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My Boris

As one of the few remaining people with frequent access to the increasingly volcanic President of Russia, Valentin Yumashev knows when to step lightly. So it was with careful planning–and a slightly queasy stomach–that the Kremlin chief of staff decided to present an important document to Boris Yeltsin one day this spring.

It happened to be a thick budget plan, chock-full of graphs, income statistics and other data that would have sent Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the rest of the C-Span crowd into spasms of geeky delight. But Boris Yeltsin is not that kind of guy. He sees himself as a man of history. Budgets bore him. So do spreadsheets, meetings and three-point plans. Yumashev knew all that, and so he wasn't terribly surprised the next day when he saw the packet sitting, unread, in Yeltsin's outbox. He was, however, taken aback when he found out why.

Silver paper clips,'' Yumashev later muttered to a friend in Moscow's financial community. "The President won't read any document unless it is held together with a gold paper clip. I used silver.''

As Russia's economy once again veers desperately toward the precipice, you have to wonder what on earth happened to this man. How did the father of Russian democracy become an autocrat who refuses even to glance at essential documents unless they are fastened together with the right color metal? The parallels to capricious czars and senile Soviets are too obvious to ignore. Yeltsin has dismissed more than 30 senior officials in the past five years; often, he fires them, denounces them, hires them back into better jobs and then fires them again (with even greater gusto). The 67-year-old President has been largely absent–addled repeatedly by mysterious respiratory infections–while a small group of predatory capitalists have done their best to plunder his nation. Yet in March, just days before his country's economy entered its most recent crisis, Yeltsin found time to assure an Internet chat group that he was taking care'' of his thick white hair.

Boris Yeltsin has always thrived on his ability to confound his enemies and keep his allies off balance. But lately his behavior comes across simply as bizarre. As a result, the man who destroyed Communism in Russia, helped vanquish the Soviet Union and pushed the century's great totalitarian monolith toward the free market has become a joke, abroad and at home. Recently on the Russian television satire Kukly–which is a cross between ''60 Minutes'' and ''Saturday Night Live''–he was depicted as a senile and incontinent hospital patient, begging the nurses to give him a second chance to remain on the ward.

Still, he remains a hard man to ignore. Yeltsin rules through contradiction, confusion, subversion. As a leader, he has two great desires, and you can watch them at war with each other nearly every day. First, he wants to bring Russia into the league of Western nations, to be taken seriously, to be embraced by the organizations–NATO, the European Union, the G7 (which he alone refers to as the Big 8)–that were largely invented to keep his country out. So his speeches are laden with cliches about his love of democracy and his lack of patience for fools who don't love it too. Yeltsin's second desire often cancels out the first. Clinging to the notion of Russia as a great power, he wants somehow to rescue his nation from its well-deserved place in the third world and to restore its imperial greatness. But that requires him to pander to a different crowd completely: the many powerful nationalists at home. Like the Soviet leaders he so defiantly replaced, Boris Yeltsin believes in carrying a very big stick.

Most world leaders are besieged by contradictions. But as Russia flirts yet again with social chaos and economic disaster, it is reasonable to ask some pointed questions about the country's first freely elected President. Is the man who led Russia away from Communism now dragging it toward the abyss? Has Boris Yeltsin become so reckless that he is destined to bankrupt the country he saved? Perhaps most important of all, does he now represent any cause but his own?

I arrived in the Moscow bureau of the Times in 1994, not long after Yeltsin resolved an impasse with the petulant and reactionary Russian Parliament by pounding it for days with machine-gun and mortar fire–and then locking up the leaders of the revolt and trying to close the opposition press. He then forced through a Constitution that allocated real power almost solely to himself. I also lived in Russia while the President waged a useless war in Chechnya that killed tens of thousands of his own citizens, savaged a beautiful region, humiliated his once-great army and resolved nothing. Having witnessed all that–and then watched in 1996 as he won re-election through lies, payoffs and the sheer luck of running against a doctrinaire Communist who was tone deaf to the changing mood of the Russian people–I may not be the most objective judge of Boris Yeltsin.

To me he will always be a selfish, arrogant bully who believes the only good advice is advice he gives. I once watched him lecture the bosses at a metal plant in southern Russia–in front of about 1,000 of their employees. Times were tough, so he told them to raise wages and provide better pensions. And to do it today. His economic advisers cowered hopelessly in the background. It hardly mattered that this cheap promise–and many others like it–would help drive Russia into its current financial black hole. Nor did it matter to Yeltsin that every one of his advisers told him that.

He did not always seem so arrogant. An earlier generation of correspondents compared Yeltsin favorably with the repugnant and brutal leaders of the Soviet Union. He was different, of course, and better. People often stood in awe of his genuine courage. Many will always remember Boris Yeltsin as the man who climbed to the top of a tank in 1991–truly one of the most powerful political gestures of recent times–to banish the Communist past with a wave of his meaty arms.

My colleagues and I, however, tend to remember the man who appeared on TV one grim morning in December 1994 to announce that his Air Force had stopped bombing the citizens of Grozny for good–the first of many times he lied openly to the world about wanting to end the carnage. Later that day, I saw the results when a squadron of unchallenged Su-27 bombers destroyed Chechnya's biggest orphanage. I remember the leader who took one quick trip to Chechnya during a 21-month war. He spent three hours on a highly protected air base and told the dazed, starved and defeated soldiers there that they ''had won the war'' that they knew they had lost. Then he got on his plane and flew back to Moscow.

''Boris Yeltsin is so obsessed with being one of the Western leaders it's pathetic,'' said Aleksandr Prokhanov, the philosopher of the extreme anti-Western old guard. ''But you know what? He acts like a Soviet. He always has. He knows what people want to hear, but he couldn't care less about democracy.''

Americans can't accept that simple fact. We love to see Yeltsin as the savior of a savage land. Hey, if he's a little rough around the edges–as a senior White House official once suggested to me–then George Washington was, too. American leaders are so invested in believing in the good Boris that they are willing to say anything to support him, as long as Yeltsin continues to believe in the stock market and to refer to Clinton as my friend Bill.''

That is why Clinton could put on his most earnest expression in 1996, appear at a news conference in Moscow and say with a straight face that the brutal slaughter in Chechnya was similar to ''a civil war in our own country'' and that Yeltsin's merciless assault on the Chechen people reminded him of Abraham Lincoln's efforts to keep the United States from falling apart in the 19th century. If a Soviet leader had acted with such clear aggression, any American President would have led an international call for sanctions.

But Boris Yeltsin is our guy. And people like Clinton are so relieved about it that they let him get away with almost anything. And he clearly knows that. Recently Yeltsin met with Michel Camdessus, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, which is trying to help Russia cure itself of its fiscal ills. The I.M.F. is seen–with some justification–as a Western control agency, and nobody in Russia gets much pleasure in remembering that their country is weak and the West is not. Yeltsin's aides and those of Camdessus dreaded what might have come from this encounter: the rectitude of the I.M.F. chief in direct conflict with the raging ego of a Russian ruler who needs the support of the West. The possibility for confrontation was enormous.

As usual, Yeltsin was crafty and surprising. He started off by admitting his sins: Russia hadn't always tightened the belt when it should have, Yeltsin said. And he was now going to take an interest in the details, not just the landscape. Then he grew conspiratorial. ''They even say I'm too sick to run this country,'' one of the meeting's participants recalls a grinning Yeltsin telling an astonished Camdessus. ''Maybe it's not such a bad idea if people think I am too sick to do my job sometimes. Maybe it keeps people guessing.''

In the end, that's what Boris Yeltsin–so desperate to retain power–cares about more than anything: keeping people guessing. Like many successful politicians, he is a human mood ring, a man whose ideology changes with the seasons, with the country he is visiting, with the phases of the moon. Such tactics work in Russia, which has never really decided whether it belongs in Europe or Asia. The debate has lasted for more than 200 years–Dostoyevsky railed against what he considered the false pull toward the West–and nobody milks that ambivalence like Yeltsin. Who else could sell nuclear technology to Iran, seek to moderate world opinion about Serbian war criminals and lecture his own Parliament about the need for currency reforms and open markets?

Yeltsin resembles no one more than Nikita Khrushchev, who also wanted to make Russia more acceptable to the West–and didn't mind resorting to some earthy theatrics to get the job done. In late March–acting after a few words placed in his ear by his daughter Tanya, who has become singularly powerful within the cloistered walls of the Kremlin–Yeltsin decided to dismiss his Government. He did it mostly so he could get rid of its slavishly loyal leader, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who after five years of dedicated service was starting to look a bit too much like a leader to suit the first freely elected President of Russia. So one morning, Yeltsin went on TV and told an astonished nation that his Prime Minister would have to go.

At first, he tried to appoint himself as acting Prime Minister. When his lawyers sheepishly told him that such an action was against the law that Yeltsin himself had created, he turned reluctantly to an untested young reform politician who had only spoken with the President once and who heard about his new job while eating breakfast that morning. By creating a political crisis, Yeltsin was back where he loves to be: unquestionably and single-handedly in charge of his country.

''It now seems pretty clear that the most primitive and vulgar explanation for all that was true,'' says Tanya Malkina, a well-known political journalist in Moscow who has followed Yeltsin's career through nearly every one of its many tortuous turnings. "Boris Yeltsin cannot stand for anyone to share power or even think about sharing power. He must have all the limelight.''

Even so, Yeltsin's most recent explosion with Chernomyrdin may turn out to have made more sense than most people think. Sure, firing Chernomydin was the work of a disloyal, selfish egomaniac. Commentators were shocked when Yeltsin essentially offered to buy off Parliament with better cars and apartments if they would confirm Sergei Kiryenko, his new Prime Minister. Yeltsin offered to ''solve the outstanding problems'' of parliamentary officials who needed nice summer places. They know what it's all about,'' Yeltsin said just before Kiriyenko was confirmed. Do what I want, and I'll give you a nice big car and a pretty little dacha.

So Yeltsin is corrupt, venal and has little regard for Robert's Rules of Order. That's no surprise. But by getting rid of his stolid old retainer, Boris Yeltsin actually made the most decisive step he has ever taken toward the road of reform.

Nothing got done when Viktor Chernomyrdin ran the Government. He had a magical ability to seek consensus in a Parliament whose most famous members have been known to pull one another's hair or fling orange juice in one another's faces during debate. He made the Communists feel comfortable, and he made the reformers feel as if he was at least on their side. The result was an endless stalemate. The vast machine of Soviet industry lumbered automatically on–like a phantom limb. Factories produced nothing worth buying, yet they never closed. Chernomyrdin was too much a creature of the past to pull out the padlocks and tell his industrialist friends that the era of tanks and tractors was over.

For all its boorishness, then, Yeltsin's decision was ultimately good for his country. And yet is that why he fired Chernomyrdin? Or was it because–as Kremlin insiders whispered–he was upset as he watched him at a meeting with Vice President Gore? He looked like he was enjoying it,'' says one former Yeltsin aide about Chernomyrdin's brief moment in the sun. And that was really the end of him.''

At a tense point during the 1996 Presidential campaign–the election in which Boris Yeltsin, half dead and often incoherent, finally put a stake through the heart of Russian Communism–I was summoned to the office of Igor Malashenko, Yeltsin's chief public-relations adviser. Malashenko began to describe his boss as a man who was desperately trying to figure out what to do with his life–and with Russia. ''He is from the old world,'' Malashenko said. He has many friends who want to go back to the old ways. And sometimes even he doesn't know what side he is on. It is hard to know whether democracy matters to him sometimes. The battle that is going on now for Russia is really a battle for one man. And it is never clear how it will all come out.''

At the time, I thought Malashenko was breathing a little too hard to be believed. But he turned out to be right. As I would later learn, the President's friend–the brutish ex-bodyguard Aleksandr Korzhakov–was trying hard to get him to call off future elections. I think he will have the elections,'' Malashenko said with more hope than certainty, because he wants to be the man who changed Russia for good.''

That, in the end, may be all that motivates Boris Yeltsin now.

Yeltsin appointed Kiriyenko because he wants to rule unchallenged and because he wants to move Russia toward markets and the West. After all, if he doesn't succeed, how will history remember him? Getting rid of Communism is not a bad line on a resume. Turning your country over to a bunch of greedy thugs, however, is.

There is supposed to be an election in the year 2000–an election without Boris Yeltsin. It will be the President's ultimate test. If he manufactures some reason to run again (nobody else is ready; he alone can lead Russia through these troubling times), he will have thrown away his last weak claim to greatness. He will become the man who took Russia from Communism to autocracy. If Boris Yeltsin becomes the first Russian leader to walk away from the Kremlin without a push or a gun at his head, it will say a lot about what kind of country he wants to see emerge in the 21st century.

A few months ago, he announced that he would not run for a third term. But he has said that before only to dance back into the ring. Don't hold your breath this time, either. Giving up power has never been one of Boris Yeltsin's strong suits. And every time some prominent official notes that his current term will have to be his last, a Kremlin spokesman races out of his office to remind people that the Constitutional Court–the judicial arm of Boris Yeltsin–has not decided that question yet. Presumably it will decide when he does.

Until then, the President will have his hands full. He just used his political wiles, the desperation of the people and the eternal Western fear of what Russia might become without him to wrangle another $17 billion from the I.M.F. But Russia doesn't just need a loan–it needs a leader with the will to carry out the toughest possible reforms. Before too long, Yeltsin will be forced back in the dock, begging for salvation. That will make the folks at home even more bitter about their status in the world. So he will tell them not to worry, that he can handle the weak leaders in the West and that eventually, Russia will prevail.

I never hung out with Boris Yeltsin. By the time I got to Moscow, Western reporters had gone from being good props in his campaign for exposure to political poison. But I once watched him bound out of his black Zil and wade into an angry Moscow crowd. Boris Nikolayevich, we live worse than we did under Brezhnev! they screamed. It was the most savage possible insult. ''It's a Western plot, an old woman screamed. ''They are driving us to ruin.

Yeltsin took it all in. His eyes said, I feel your pain. Then he responded with a quick, vulgar joke. I must admit I hardly caught a word he said–and no one would repeat it. But when I sidled up to the old lady who attacked him and asked what she thought of the President now, she broke into a smile as big as Siberia. He's a muzhik, she said, using a term that describes a tough peasant, a man of the people. I don't think you have those where you're from."

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