Bill and Boris sup in Helsinki: Boris Yeltsin

Today and tomorrow, the presidents of Russia and the United States meet to confront their countries', and their own, problems. We look at what they hope to get from each other

Politics aside, Bill Clinton has always had a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin. But the gift that he has unwittingly handed his Russian counterpart before the Helsinki summit goes beyond the usual boundaries of generosity. And Mr Yeltsin is clearly pleased.

He, Boris not Bill, was supposed to be the invalid, the ailing leader who could barely walk. He was the one whom we all felt sure was doomed by ill-health to leave office soon, ending a political odyssey that has embraced the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic reforms, a slump comparable with America's Great Depression, the bombardment of parliament, and a hugely costly war. And yet the lame one will be the accident-prone Bill Clinton, nursing a leg injured outside the golfer Greg Norman's house in Florida. If all goes smoothly, Mr Yeltsin will have once again proved not only to have astounding powers of recovery, but staggeringly good fortune.

He needs it. He will arrive in Helsinki today looking much like an ageing boxer who is fighting out of his class, and is therefore reduced to weigh- in vaunts. The main issue at hand, Nato enlargement, concerns no less momentous a theme than the security of Europe in the next century, yet the advantage clearly lies with his opponent. So much so that Andrei Kozyrev, his former foreign secretary, has suggested that the summit is a mistake. "What kind of diplomacy is it that makes our president go to the worst possible meeting with a US president after six years of Russia's new existence?" he asked Echo Moskvy radio station. "Now Yeltsin has either to retreat before the enemy or enter a new tough round of confrontation."

Mr Yeltsin's last meeting with Mr Clinton was nearly a year ago, last April, when the G7 convened in Moscow. How times have changed. The conflict in Chechnya was still raging, despite Mr Yeltsin's insistence to the contrary. The Communists were riding high after securing 23 per cent in December's parliamentary election, and there was real concern - even among the cooler heads of western diplomats - that their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, would win the presidential election.

But time and again, Mr Yeltsin has proved it is dangerous to underestimate him. His flair for campaigning, the might and money of his election machine, and his capacity for "realpolitik" came to the rescue. He lavished wild promises on the electorate, squeezed Mr Zyuganov off the airwaves, and successfully wooed the support of a fellow candidate, the popular ex-paratrooper Alexander Lebed - who brought with him a healthy number of votes. Mr Yeltsin even managed to wind down and later end the Chechen war.

All this won him back his place in the Kremlin, but precious little else. Even before July's final round, he was crippled by hushed-up heart problems, beginning a period of absenteeism that has consumed a fifth of his four- year second term. Unstable and bewildered, the country was quietly run from behind the scenes by his then chief-of-staff, Anatoly Chubais, advised by the president's daughter, Tatyana, and a small group of business moguls.

Eight months on, the picture looks no better. This week's cabinet reshuffle, which has given a starring role to two young warriors of free market reforms, Mr Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, the 37-year-old governor of Nizhny Novgorod, has delighted the West - and particularly Mr Clinton. "It is a very positive sign," said US State Department's Nick Burns. "We are very anxious to work with that team."

But this enthusiasm is not shared by many Russians. The country is engulfed by deep disillusion, fostered by a welter of crises - from corruption reaching to the pinnacle of government, a collapsing welfare system and growing unemployment, to an army that is falling apart. Although inflation appears under control, consumer prices have risen by 1,700 times in the past five years, demolishing the life savings of most Russians. An epidemic of tax evasion has forced the government to slash back spending, stoking up vast wage and pension arrears. This hostile environment has prompted many to conclude that politics is nothing more than a dangerous contest between former Communist apparatchiki and mighty industrial and financial interests over the spoils of a wrecked land.

So the events of the next two days are crucial. Mr Yeltsin needs a public relations success to ease domestic tensions, and to prove to Russia that it is still a powerful player on the world stage. This will not be easy. No one expects a final settlement over Nato, although there may be some progress. Whatever deal eventually emerges, there will be few cheers in Russia; it remains as unshakeably opposed to the alliance's enlargement as the West is to forging ahead.

He may be able to notch up some modest gains elsewhere - movement over Russia's ambition to join the G7 and the World Trade Organisation, progress with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and promises of US investment in return for a Russian pledge to create a more secure business environment. For the cameras, there will be some silver-tongued assurances from Bill, and some growling from Boris.

Mr Yeltsin is a great performer. The world will never forget how he climbed on to a tank to face down plotters in the abortive coup of 1991. He has a record for making astonishing come-backs - ranging from his return after being purged from the Soviet politburo in 1989 to his victory last year. But he will need all his Houdini-esque skills if he is to walk away from Helsinki without looking as lame as his American opponent.

News
i100
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Property

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: KENT MARKET TOWN - An exciting new role has ar...

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices