Yeltsin Reflects on Drinking, Lewinsky Scandal

ByGerald Nadler

N E W  Y O R K, Oct. 8, 2000 -- Boris Yeltsin says in his new memoir that he wasdrunk when he grabbed the baton and began conducting a militaryorchestra in Berlin in 1994, but that he now limits himself to aglass of wine a day on doctor’s orders.

In Midnight Diaries, called The Presidential Marathon inits Russian edition, Yeltsin writes that he nearly postponedRussia’s 1996 presidential elections and that he picked VladimirPutin as his heir apparent because he was looking for a strong,determined general like the ones he read about in books when he wasyoung.

Confronting reports of his drinking, Yeltsin writes: “Fairlyearly on, I concluded that alcohol was the only means to quicklyget rid of stress.”

In 1994, when he conducted the military orchestra, Yeltsin said,“I snapped.”

Conducting Himself Poorly

“I remember that the weight would lift after a few shotglasses,” he writes. “And in that sense of lightness, I felt asif I could conduct an orchestra.

“After that incident, a group of my aides wrote me a lettersaying that my behavior and impromptu remarks were harming me andall our mutual work. ... None of them was able to help me.

“I walked along the beach in Sochi and realized that I had togo on living. I had to regain my strength. Gradually I came tomyself.”

In Moscow on Saturday, Yeltsin attended a book release ceremonyswarming with Russia’s political elite. Putin, who was celebratinghis 48th birthday elsewhere, did not attend.

In an interview broadcast on state-controlled ORT television andtimed to coincide with the release, Yeltsin took fullresponsibility for the bloodshed in breakaway Chechnya but defendedthe rest of his tumultuous tenure, including his abrupt decision toresign.

‘I Had to Resign’

“It was only for Russia’s sake that I made that step. A newpresident was needed. I had to resign,” he said.

Yeltsin, whose ailing health marred his last years in office,often appeared puzzled during the interview and his breathing wasslightly labored. Seated at home in a sweater, he punctuated hisspeech with a few of his trademark, raised-eyebrow grins.

“I cannot shift the blame for Chechnya, for the sorrow ofnumerous mothers and fathers,” he said. “I made the decision,therefore I am responsible.”

Yeltsin was heaped with scorn for sending troops to crushChechnya’s separatist bid in 1994, starting a war that killed tensof thousands of people and ended with a humiliating Russianwithdrawal in 1996. Moscow launched a new offensive last year,largely managed by Putin. That campaign has enjoyed public supportbecause of the lawlessness that engulfed Chechnya after the lastwar.

In his memoir, Yeltsin writes that after his first heart attackin 1995 and after the Communists won more than 40 percent of theparliament seats, he came close to postponing the 1996 presidentialelection and wanted to dissolve parliament and ban the CommunistParty.

“I had to take a radical step,” he writes. “I told my staffto prepare the documents.”

His daughter and adviser Tatyana Dyachenko begged him to listento another opinion and brought in adviser Anatoly Chubais.

“‘It’s a crazy idea to get rid of the Communists in this way,’”Chubais said, according to Yeltsin. “‘The elections can’t bepostponed.’”

Yeltsin says he objected, shouted, “and finally I reversed adecision I had almost already made.”

Picking a Successor

In discussing his successor, Yeltsin writes that Putin caughthis eye because unlike other Kremlin aides, this former KGB agentdelivered crisp reports and did not linger for chitchat.

“Unlike other deputies who were always trying to lay out theirvisions of Russia and the world, Putin did not try to strike upconversations with me,” Yeltsin writes. “…And preciselybecause of that I wanted to talk to him more.”

Putin came to the Kremlin in March 1997 as an aide dealing withRussia’s regions and quickly impressed Yeltsin.

While “sometimes even my most innocuous comments threw peopleoff,” Putin would reply calmly and naturally, Yeltsin writes. “Itmade me feel that this young man was ready for absolutely anythingin life.”

In July 1998, Yeltsin appointed the German-speaking ex-KGB agentto be director of Russia’s federal security service, the successoragency to the KGB. Putin refused to accept the military rank ofgeneral, saying ‘”I am a civilian. … If you allow it, I willremain a colonel in the reserves.’”

‘In Awe’ of Clinton

From his first meeting with President Clinton in 1993, Yeltsinwas in awe of the American leader.

“I was completely amazed by this young, eternally smiling man,who was powerful, energetic and handsome. For me, Clinton was thepersonification of the new generation in politics. He lent hope tothe idea of the future without wars, without the grim ideologicalstruggles of the past.”

In the TV interview, Yeltsin said that he received intelligenceabout the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it became public in theUnited States. He said he didn’t bother to warn Clinton because “Ithought Clinton could handle it himself.”

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