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Friday, 31 December, 1999, 10:14 GMT
Boris Yeltsin: Master of surprise
Mr Yeltsin sways as he stands up
Shifting positions: Mr Yeltsin's behaviour became increasingly hard to predict
There is perhaps only one thing certain about Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin - that the president has of late been regarded more and more as a political joke in his own country.

Boris Yeltin dancing on a stage
Hot stepper: Unpredictable behaviour
Unfortunately for Russia, since his health began to deteriorate seriously, leading to a quintuple heart bypass following his 1996 re-election, his behaviour has been no laughing matter.

The country entered 1999 knowing that the fall-out of the previous year's economic crisis was far from over.

The rouble lost 75% of its value over the year and Boris Yeltsin's response had been to sack two prime ministers within six months - Viktor Chernomyrdin in March and Sergei Kiriyenko in August.

Yeltsin resigns
But with the additional dismissals of Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin - taking the total to four premiers in 18 months - many ordinary people came to regard the president's actions as signs of desperation.

The body politic is in appalling health, they concluded, and headed by a man who had become an international embarrassment.

Hero to villain

The domestic and international view of Boris Yeltsin has changed dramatically since the fall of communism.

Bewildering Boris highlights
In August 1991 he was hailed as a hero and a defender of democracy when he mounted a tank in Moscow, rallying the people against an attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev's era of glasnost and perestroika.

Today, he looks back on a second term in office which has been dominated by financial crises, rifts with the West over Kosovo, a battle against impeachment and a public weary with his gaffes making the news as often as his policies.

One of Mr Yeltsin's most recent faux-pas slipped out in May at the height of the Kosovo conflict.

Handing out awards at the Kremlin, the president spluttered out words to the effect that if President Bill Clinton were to cause some sort of accident in Yugoslavia, Russia would "send a missile".

Mr Yeltsin's press spokesman, Dmitry Yakushkin, moved so fast that journalists were left in no doubt that this could not be regarded as a statement of policy.

Russian TV journalists agreed not to use the clip, but the US network NBC included it in a report on Mr Yeltsin's health.

Boisterous Boris

Mr Yeltsin's behaviour has become increasingly bizarre, and might even on occasion be amusing if he were not ultimately responsible for a state with a huge nuclear arsenal and an economy teetering on the brink of total collapse.

Yeltin drinks a glass of wine
Drink was blamed for gaffes
While he has provided entertainment for the world's media, critics say Mr Yeltsin's behaviour has swung between that of a power-junkie and a quixotic figure out of touch with reality.

In 1994 during a visit to Germany, a band struck up a Russian folk song at a champagne luncheon.

The president, in rude health and enjoying the champagne, jumped onto the stage, snatched the baton and conducted the brass band while singing, dancing and blowing kisses to the audience.

A month later, during a Dublin stop-over, Mr Yeltsin was due to meet the Irish premier Albert Reynolds.

Yeltsin'd health record
After an embarrassingly long wait at the end of a red carpet on the runway at Shannon Airport, the Irish leadership was informed by the president's advisors that he was "unwell" and would not be leaving the plane.

On returning to Moscow, Mr Yeltsin admonished his team for not waking him up. The accepted version of events among journalists is that he was drunk.

Mr Yeltsin's drink problems have been blamed for more than one indiscretion.

Visiting Sweden in December 1997, Mr Yeltsin suddenly announced with a flourish that he was unilaterally cutting Russia's nuclear arsenal by a third, prompting more than a little consternation at the Kremlin.

His long-suffering press secretary assured journalists that the president actually meant he was not cutting back nuclear weapons at all.

Red faces in the emerald isle: Yeltsin's non-appearance in Eire
Some of his most extraordinary breaches in protocol came during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in February 1998.

Despite trying to bring the audience to an end, the Pope was forced to retake his seat after Mr Yeltsin announced loudly: "Holy Father, we haven't finished yet".

At the subsequent banquet, the president used an expansive toast to declare his "boundless love for Italian women".

Health fears

Months later an allegedly darker side to the president emerged when his former head of security described him as a suicidal alcoholic who was unfit to govern.

Holding on: Appearances have been increasingly rare
Alexander Korzhakov, since accused of seeking revenge for being ousted, claimed the president had twice tried to kill himself, including an alleged attempt to lock himself in a sauna.

The Kremlin's nerves were further jangled after Mr Yeltsin stumbled during a ceremony in Uzbekistan last autumn, a scene which was endlessly replayed on television to show his declining health.

His speech has been slurred and he has needed physical support at public engagements.

There has been a tragic edge to the decline of Boris Yeltsin as politicians and journalists have paid less and less attention to his utterances.

In October last year he announced he was giving up the day-to-day running of the country and was readmitted to hospital.

But the sackings of both Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin showed Mr Yeltsin as the political pugilist of old.

The crisis in the Caucasus has brought an even greater need for Russia to proceed with measured steps, guided by a steady hand in the Kremlin.

Mr Yeltsin's hand-picked prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has emerged from relative obscurity to assume this leadership role.

But in Mr Yeltsin, Russia has in recent years had the opposite kind of leader - a loose cannon of whom Russians have come to expect only the unexpected.

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