Ailing Yeltsin to face Chechnya critics at summit

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The Independent Online
HAVING KEPT Russians guessing for days, the ailing President Boris Yeltsin has decided he will lead the charge against Western criticism over Chechnya at the European security summit in Istanbul this week.

Mr Yeltsin is keen to bring Western colleagues round to his view that a massive bombing campaign is the best way to fight terrorism in the Caucasus. But many Russians, while not disagreeing with the argument, would probably prefer to see it put by the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, at the summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He is less likely to keel over or otherwise prove an embarrassment while representing them on the world stage. Mr Putin has often deputised for the President .

Mr Yeltsin, 68, who had a heart bypass operation in 1996 and has suffered from respiratory, back and stomach problems since, has seldom been abroad since October 1998, when he collapsed during a visit to Central Asia.

Even before his health let him down, the Kremlin leader had behaved in a less-than-statesmanlike manner on several foreign trips. In Dublin he failed to get off an aircraft to meet the Irish Prime Minister. In Germany, probably under the influence of alcohol, he seized the baton of a military orchestra during an official ceremony. And in Norway he violated court protocol by calling the Queen and the Prime Minister at the time, Gro Harlem Brundtland, "raspberries and cream", because they were wearing red and white dresses.

In Istanbul, there could be worse than mere social awkwardness when Mr Yeltsin tries to persuade "friend Bill" and other Western leaders of the righteousness of his campaign in Chechnya. In Cologne the Russian was the one urging political solutions and condemning the use of force by Nato in Kosovo. Now it is the West that is accusing Moscow of over- reacting to a small number of Islamic guerrillas and creating a huge refugee crisis with its air and artillery strikes.

Most Russians support the tough message that Mr Yeltsin will take to the West. While casualties among the federal forces remain few compared with those suffered in the 1994-96 war against Chechnya, Russian public opinion is solidly behind the campaign. Such a change of mood has come too late to help Mr Yeltsin, who must retire in June 2000, but it makes Prime Minister Putin, his preferred successor, increasingly likely to be the next occupant of the Kremlin.

Mr Yeltsin has made clear that his chosen heir must serve out his apprenticeship. The popular broadcaster Yevgeny Kiselyov wondered why, since Mr Putin's chances now looked so good, the President did not resign early to make way for him. But Mr Yeltsin, whose last illness was a bout of flu in October, reiterated at the weekend that he would retire at the end of his term and not a moment sooner. His insistence on going to Istanbul is further proof that he intends to lead and represent the Russians, whether they like it or not.