When Britain chalked up contingency plans fearing Yeltsin would die in office

Russian President Boris Yeltsin despite his health problems, remained in power until the end of December 1999, battling his drinking problems and heart attacks.
Yeltsin even with his health problems was six years older than the average Russian male’s life expectancy of 58.(AP)
Yeltsin even with his health problems was six years older than the average Russian male’s life expectancy of 58.(AP)
Updated on Dec 31, 2019 08:43 AM IST
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London | ByAgence France-Presse

Britain was so concerned by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s heart attacks and drinking in 1995 that contingency plans were drawn up in case he died in office, declassified files showed on Tuesday.

After Yeltsin suffered a second heart attack, the Foreign Office drafted statements of condolence, fearing for his health amid the boozing, according to documents released from Britain’s National Archives.

In a hectic round of diplomacy, Yeltsin had a summit with US President Bill Clinton in the town of Hyde Park north of New York, on October 23, 1995.

He was rushed to hospital in Moscow with heart trouble on October 26, for the second time in under four months.

A cable the same day from ambassador Andrew Wood in Moscow on Yeltsin’s medical condition reported on his drinking in New York.

“He consumed wine and beer greedily at Hyde Park and regretted the absence of cognac,” the British diplomat said.

“One of his aides took a glass of champagne away from him when the aide felt enough was enough, and he was alcoholically cheerful at his press conference with Clinton.” Prime Minister John Major sent a message to the recuperating Yeltsin, telling him: “You have not spared yourself both in dealing with Russia’s domestic affairs and in travelling abroad”, and hoping he would be “back on top form very soon”.

An accompanying message from Major’s wife, Norma, to Naina Yeltsina said: “I know how much you worry about him. He has carried a heavy burden these past few years, much to the good of his country and of the world.” An October 27 cable from Wood said: “If Yeltsin were to die suddenly we would be in for a period of exceptional political confusion”, as presidential and parliamentary elections loomed.

A month later, the Foreign Office wrote to Downing Street to say Yeltsin seemed to be recovering and noted the president was now six years older than the average Russian male’s life expectancy of 58.

“His approved intention to curb his drinking after his first heart attack did not endure: there is little reason to be confident that he will do better this time. He is a bad insurance risk,” the memo said.

“We have therefore given some thought to contingency plans should President Yeltsin die in office.” The likely arrangements for Britain’s funeral delegation were outlined, including draft messages to be issued to the media, Yeltsin’s wife and the acting president.

The press statement called Yeltsin a “leader of courage and vision” who transformed Russia’s outlook from ideological confrontation with the West to close cooperation.

“Perhaps Boris Yeltsin’s greatest legacy is that he achieved so much in such a short time,” it said.

Despite his health problems, Yeltsin remained in power until the end of December 1999. He died in 2007 aged 76.

Major, who left office in 1997, attended his funeral in Moscow for Britain.

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