Old alliances given Yeltsin's kiss of life

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THE TANGIBLE results were meagre in the extreme: a promise to improve transport links and increased co-operation between universities: but for anyone with a sense of history, the mere holding of yesterday's first "troika" summit between France, Germany and Russia was enough in itself.

Singly, but above all in their alliances and their wars, the three countries whose leaders gathered at a government complex just outside Moscow have largely shaped the course of mainland Europe for the past 300 years. And the intended message yesterday was unmistakable: what goes around, comes around.

For Mr Yeltsin the occasion symbolised that Russia belonged to Europe whatever the attitudes of Nato and the EU. For France, which courted Soviet Russia even at the depths of the Cold War - and to a lesser extent for Germany - it was another way of saying that Europe should be an independent voice in world affairs: independent, that is, of the US.

And that is how the absence of Britain, eternally torn between Atlanticism and Europeanism, should be read. While Tony Blair may extol Britain's "leading role" in Europe, he is considered by both the French and the Russians too close to the US - an economic and ideological affinity most lately on view in the uncompromisingly tough "Anglo-Saxon" line against Iraq.

Britain insists it has not been snubbed, claiming that relations with Russia are excellent (which, by and large, they are) and that bilateral summits and bodies like the G-8 are perfectly adequate means of ensuring they remain so. It has "no plans," officials, say to turn this particular threesome into a foursome.

Mr Yeltsin, for his part, tried to lay some of this century's less pleasant ghosts. Unlike some earlier links involving the three countries, this one "was not intended against anyone else". If there was a chance of enlarging the group, that would be "no problem". But the staying power of the troika must be questioned. The next summit is pencilled in for May 1999, in France.

By then however, given Chancellor Kohl's precarious political health, and Mr Yeltsin's equally precarious physical health, both Germany and Russia may have new leaders.

Bonn from the outset was the most reluctant participant, while the Russian Foreign Ministry has had very mixed feelings about an initiative that Mr Yeltsin revealed out of the blue when he met Jacques Chirac in Strasbourg last year.

Mr Yeltsin seemed in reasonable shape yesterday, though he appeared to mistake the routine photo-call for a full-scale press conference, and deflected all questions about the replacement for the government he sacked this week. "Maybe yes, maybe no," he replied when asked if he would give the 35-year-old acting Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, the job on a permanent basis. Nor did the three leaders give any hint of their discussions over the crisis in Kosovo where, just as with Iraq, France and Russia have misgivings over the tougher sanctions against Slobodan Milosevic urged by Washington.