Russia angered by Nato chief's tour

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JAVIER SOLANA, Secretary-General of Nato and a critic of the West's handling of Russia, was yesterday on a mission that risked deepening anti-Western sentiment within the unstable and bankrupt former super-power.

Mr Solana arrived in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, for a three-nation tour of ex-Soviet republics in the Caucasus, a strategically vital region over which Moscow has long been striving to maintain its geopolitical influence.

None of his critics - beyond the more extreme elements in Moscow - disputes the alliance's right to visit independent nations, but questions have been raised about the timing, which comes amid deep uncertainty over the future course of Russia. "It is very unfortunate," one Western diplomat said.

Billed by Nato as an effort to build further co-operation with the Caucasus republics, the Solana trip coincides with a debate in the West over who is responsible for what some analysts characterise as the "loss" of Russia.

Mr Solana has chipped in, lambasting Western powers for lacking leadership or strategy. Yet Nato, whose expansion into Eastern Europe has long been a bone of contention with Russia, has further ensured that it gets a share of the blame by parading its colours on Russia's southern flank in a particularly fraught and uncertain period.

More than two weeks after his appointment, Boris Yeltsin's premier Yevgeny Primakov has yet to complete his government. Doubts abound over how long this government - an awkward hotch-potch combining weathered apparatchiks with a scattering of more progressive figures - will last. And no one can be certain whether Moscow will espouse the mantra of market capitalism, or whether anti-Western forces will prevail.

Mr Solana, who will also visit Armenia and Azerbaijan, is not the only example of questionable efforts by the West to assert superiority at a time of Russian weakness: in the past month, the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet, the LaSalle, has been steaming around the Black Sea.

Publicly, Moscow has said little about Mr Solana's long-planned visit, though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday repeated its general hostility to Nato expansion. But government opinion is not the only issue. Russia is due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections within the next 22 months. Actions which strengthen anti-Western sentiment inevitably breath wind into the sails of resurgent, and potentially extreme, forces on the left and right.

Yesterday, those elements were not shy in airing their views. Alexander Podberyozhkin, a policymaker for the Communists, announced that he had complained about the Nato visit to the Georgian government and to the United States. Much of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, will share his views: it has a 300-member anti-Nato group.

Beneath the issue lies a larger sense of insecurity that has taken hold in Moscow as Russia watches the withering of its geopolitical sinews both in its so-called "near abroad" - former Soviet territory - and within its borders, where regions are straining at the federal leash.