Boris's change of venue is snow joke

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HELMUT KOHL and Jacques Chirac looked a little embarrassed at the chummy press conference with Boris Yeltsin after Thursday's meeting of the "Big European Troika", a new political club for which Russia clearly has more need than Germany or France. But the German chancellor and the French president will feel even more uncomfortable if their respective embassies pass on details of the row that blew up in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg yesterday once the honoured foreign guests were gone.

Because at some past international gathering Mr Chirac had said in passing he would like to see Mr Yeltsin's home town, Yekaterinburg was chosen weeks ago as the venue for the informal meeting between the three leaders. But then, after Mr Yeltsin fell ill with flu this month, doctors advised him it would be better if the session of the "troika" was moved to the "Bor" sanatorium outside Moscow. Only yesterday, did it become clear how much Yekaterinburg, a deprived industrial city, had lost by the last-minute change of plan.

Yekaterinburg, formerly called Sverdlovsk, had no facilities for hosting an important international meeting and so spent hundreds of thousands of dollars it could ill afford renovating rooms and offices for the guests and their entourage. The governor, Eduard Rossel, said he would give up his own office for the Kremlin leader while Mr Kohl and Mr Chirac would have brand new suites specially decorated for them.

Seeing a chance to be famous for something other than being the place where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed, the city went to town with preparations for a party. The local chocolate factory retooled to produce, in a triangular box, a new line of "troika" chocolates, and television yesterday showed a factory worker crying after she found out that Messrs. Yeltsin, Kohl and Chirac would not be tasting the chocolates she had made for them by hand.

That was only the half of it. Most shocking was television footage of armies of Yekaterinburg schoolchildren, students and workers turning over the dirty late spring snow with shovels so it looked white on the roadsides that the politicians were likely to pass. "They have had us building a Potemkin village," complained a woman at a demonstration where protesters were starting to remember that in Yekaterinburg, as in other cities, state- sector wages and pensions have not been paid for months. "Down with Yeltsin," they cried. "Down with his old government, down with his new government, down with any government he tries to form!"

The woman who spoke of "Potemkin villages" was referring to an old Russian tradition dating back to the time of Catherine the Great, whose lover, Grigory Potemkin, built facades along the routes she used to travel to make it appear that provincial Russia was prospering.