Chirac upbeat about Yeltsin and Russia

Public more concerned about president's fitness than Nato expansion

President Jacques Chirac of France yesterday said he was optimistic both about Boris Yeltsin's health and prospects for understanding between Russia and Nato.

"I was impressed by the speed of his recovery," said Mr Chirac, after three hours of talks with the Russian leader on European security issues. Mr Chirac is the first foreign leader to meet Mr Yeltsin since he fell ill with pneumonia last month.

"I found him, as always, extraordinarily well informed about all the problems of the world, which we discussed together, and very tough in the defence of Russia's interests, which is entirely legitimate."

Journalists could only take his word for it, as they had no access to Mr Yeltsin himself. French television was allowed to film the Russian leader, dressed in a dark coat and fur hat, greeting Mr Chirac on the steps of his country residence at Novo-Ogaryovo. And Russian television showed a short clip of Mr Yeltsin, looking frail and with a fixed smile on his face, chatting to his guest inside. But there was no joint press conference afterwards, only Mr Chirac's briefing to reporters at Vnukovo airport as he prepared to leave Moscow.

The talks were dominated by the issue of Nato's planned eastward expansion, which Russia strongly opposes.

But Mr Chirac said he thought that if Moscow and the West showed mutual respect and flexibility, then an understanding could be reached before a summit in Madrid in July when Nato is expected to invite the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join up. "If these conditions are met, I think - and this is my personal impression - that an agreement can be reached before the Madrid summit," said Mr Chirac.

"Yeltsin is extremely satisfied with the results of the talks," said his press spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky.

Privately, Russian officials acknowledge that Nato's expansion is more or less inevitable and Moscow is looking to European countries to help it secure a deal which would at least keep the alliance's military structures away from its borders. France is seen as a friend because it understands Moscow's desire for a legally-binding document on relations with Nato, rather than a general political declaration as advocated by Washington.

But for ordinary Russians observing the meeting, the main point of interest was not Nato but whether Mr Yeltsin is fit to rule his vast country. The television footage would have done little to change the minds of political opponents who say that the Kremlin leader's double bout of pneumonia, coming on top of the heart problems that kept him out of action for much of last year, shows he should retire.

Kremlin aides insist Mr Yeltsin is making a good recovery. But he celebrated his 66th birthday on Saturday in the narrow circle of his family. The only two other guests were the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the head of the presidential administration, Anatoly Chubais, who have taken on much of the day-to-day burden of running the country while Mr Yeltsin has been ill.

n President Yeltsin congratulated Chechnya's new leader on his election, calling the vote "an important step" in resolving Moscow's conflict with the breakaway republic, a spokesman said yesterday, AP reports.

Mr Yeltsin sent the head of his Security Council, Ivan Rybkin, to Chechnya to deliver the message at the weekend. Mr Rybkin met the Chechen president- elect, Aslan Maskhadov, who says he is determined to lead Chechnya to independence but Russia says it will never let Chechnya secede.

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