At a May 5 televised cabinet meeting on preparations for the celebration of 2,000 years of Christianity, President Boris Yeltsin suddenly looked up from his papers, stared balefully about the table, and slowly spoke: “They are sitting the wrong way. Stepashin is first deputy.” An embarrassed Sergei Stepashin, the minister of the interior who was recently promoted to deputy prime minister, was forced to move closer to Yeltsin, changing seats with the president’s chief of staff.

A scene out of “The Godfather” movies, perhaps–except Marlon Brando’s puffy jowls were cosmetologically induced, while Boris Yeltsin’s are pharmacological. Despite his recently renewed political activity, the president’s health is iffy. Over the past week, he has been caught on camera walking unsteadily, stumbling in his speech and digressing into non sequiturs and odd outbursts.

The Russian press has voluntarily restrained its coverage of these lapses, but they are well known to the members of the State Duma who plan to vote May 13 on several counts of impeachment against the president. If an impeachment motion carries by the required two-thirds majority, the Federation Council, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court would all still have to join in before the president is forced from office. But many fear that impeachment in the Duma could provoke new displays of presidential pique, up to and including dismissal of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. That in turn could queer the recent $4.5 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund and upset Russia’s new-found diplomatic leverage. The betting in Moscow is that Yeltsin will escape impeachment but will not emerge stronger from the vote.