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Foes Say Yeltsin’s Ranting Just a Snow Job : Russia: Ill president berates Moscow mayor for slow response to clearing streets after first winter storm. Some suggest it’s just an icy slap at a political rival.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s snowing in Moscow, and those who speak for Boris N. Yeltsin want it known that the Russian leader, while seriously ill, is not insensitive to commuters stuck in snowbound traffic and elderly pedestrians slipping on the ice.

Just the other day, the president’s press service reported, Yeltsin summoned Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov to his hospital bedside and dressed him down for the clumsy response by the city’s 4,000 snowplows to this winter’s first storm.

“Yeltsin criticized the organization of this work in the capital, noting that the clearing of streets was extremely poor and needed to be straightened out urgently,” the press service said.

Since the 64-year-old leader was hospitalized Oct. 26 with heart problems, aides have tried to portray him as a man still in touch and in charge. On Monday, though still bedridden and hidden from public view, Yeltsin resumed what spokesman Sergei K. Medvedev called his “routine working schedule . . . the same as if he were in the Kremlin.”

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But the lecture on snow removal--a perennial problem the president never complained about publicly when he was mobile--conveyed more than the daily mantra of reassurance.

It was, said some Kremlin watchers, a slap at a potential rival in the June presidential race--and a reminder that Yeltsin, despite two bouts with myocardial ischemia in four months, has not ruled out running for reelection.

“He called Luzhkov on the carpet and told him off so the mayor would remember who’s boss,” said Konstantin Pleshakov, a political scientist at Moscow’s U.S.A.-Canada Institute, reading between lines of the terse Kremlin communique.

In a nation on edge over its ailing president and the looming struggle for succession, not even the weather escapes the scrutiny of Kremlinologists. They monitor every visitor to Yeltsin’s room, the length of each stay and the statements issued afterward for clues about the struggle for favor and influence.

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Some conclusions: Gen. Alexander V. Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s hard-line security chief and the only visitor with access from Day One, is still his most powerful aide. Oleg N. Soskovets, a Korzhakov ally, is a threat to his boss, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. The most reform-minded deputy prime minister, Anatoly B. Chubais, is losing influence; he has yet to visit the hospital.

Luzhkov, who visited Saturday, has a complex relationship with Yeltsin. The Kremlin values the autocratic mayor’s achievements as a master builder but considers him too independent and ambitious.

“Yeltsin, or Yeltsin’s people, want to protect him from Luzhkov’s designs on the presidency,” Pleshakov said. “Luzhkov made his name repaving the city streets. So they told the country, ‘This guy can’t even keep the snow off; how can he run for president?’ ”

City Hall brushed off the criticism. “Maybe huge snowdrifts are the only thing Yeltsin can see from his hospital window,” said Vladimir Manyuk, a mayoral aide. “But there was no catastrophe.”

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In fact, 16 inches of snow fell on the city Wednesday and Thursday, and police recorded 316 auto accidents--a high number for two days. “The snow trucks weren’t ready,” said a traffic cop in an observation perch over Moscow’s Prospekt Mira. “It was a total mess.”


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