Deal stores up problems for Yeltsin

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The Independent Online
THE IMAGE for the cameras was the handshake - staged repeatedly to make sure no one missed it. They shook hands sitting to sign Start 2, shook hands standing to clink glasses of champagne; and shook hands again walking out of the Kremlin past a guard of honour with high black boots and fixed bayonets. 'Today the Cold War is over,' declared President George Bush. 'I would call this a treaty - a treaty of hope,' pronounced President Boris Yeltsin.

But there was another image yesterday amid all the smiles in the glittering Vladimir Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace: the cracking knuckles and distracted scowl of Russia's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi. As Mr Bush and Mr Yeltsin exchanged hyperbolic praise of Start 2 and each other, Mr Rutskoi looked on glumly, seated with other ministers.

Washington and Moscow, having agreed to the scrap some 17,000 nuclear warheads, may now be friends, but Mr Yeltsin is at odds with much of his own country. The struggle is no longer between US and Russian diplomats, who negotiated Start 2 in a record six months, but between Russia's politicians and the fragmented remains of the Soviet Union.

A key actor in this struggle will be Mr Rutskoi, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a champion of Russian nationalism and, in recent months, an increasingly forceful critic of Mr Yeltsin. He has yet to pronounce publicly on Start 2, but will play a crucial role in deciding whether Russia's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, agrees to ratify it. 'It will not be an easy task,' conceded the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, speaking from Moscow to US television.

In a speech at the signing ceremony, Mr Yeltsin took pains to calm concern that he may have buckled under US pressure for a quick deal: 'I can say with absolute certainty the signed treaty strengthens the security of Russia rather than weakens it.' But he made no mention of a thorny issue that could delay the pact's implementation or even torpedo it: Ukraine. Now the world's third largest independent nuclear power, Ukraine has pledged to scrap Soviet weapons left on its territory but is yet to ratify an earlier disarmament treaty, Start 1. Until it does so, yesterday's accord is meaningless. Interfax news agency reported that Mr Kozyrev sent a message to Ukraine warning it 'not to dally' any longer.

Absent from yesterday's ceremony was the man who made it all possible, Mikhail Gorbachev. Amid all the rhetoric about a new era, his name crossed neither Mr Bush's nor Mr Yeltsin's lips. 'This causes surprise and regret,' complained a Gorbachev aide, Anatoly Chernyayev.

Russia's parliament put up no opposition to the ratification of Start 1, signed by Mr Gorbachev and Mr Bush at the last Moscow summit in 1991. But Mr Yeltsin's relations with the conservative- dominated legislature are sour. MPs, all elected under Communism, may try to flex their muscles to scupper or at least modify Start 2. Iona Andronov, deputy head of parliament's foreign affairs commission, has condemned the treaty as the 'treachery of the century'.

Having asserted their right to a voice in economic policy at the last Congress, MPs seem keen for another test of strength over foreign policy, voicing doubts about both the pace of nuclear disarmament and Russia's position on the former Yugoslavia.

Sergei Baburin, a leader of the conservative Russia faction, dismisses rapid disarmament as a US plot and demands that Moscow intervene to help rather than halt Serbia.

President Yeltsin yesterday brushed aside the possibility of the arms pact being rejected, dismissing its opponents as a handful of extremists. But he did offer some comfort to his critics by avoiding any firm commitment on enforcement of a no-fly zone over Bosnia.

'I'm not going to hide from you that a certain number of deputies are against the treaty,' he told a press conference in the Kremlin. 'They are against anything positive that takes place in Russia.' The majority, he said, 'believe in reason and of course they believe in the significance of this treaty.' So far, vocal opposition to Start 2 has been largely limited to the most belligerent nationalist fringe. Several dozen of them protested outside the Kremlin yesterday, waving red flags and anti-American placards. 'Get that Satan Bush out of Russia,' read one banner.

Moderate opposition MPs have questioned the speed with which the deal was sealed. The military is believed to have grave reservations and the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, yesterday tried to calm concern that Russia had lost out. The treaty, he said, 'does not imply that Russia is losing its nuclear missile capabilities on land'. Of particular concern to Russia's generals is abolition of Russia's most potent weapon, the SS-18, which carries 10 nuclear warheads, while the US is allowed to keep half of its own preferred weapons, submarine-launched missiles.

But officials on both sides insisted the treaty was balanced. US officials emphasised what Washington regards as a big concession - granting Russia the right to inspect the B-2 Stealth bomber, one of the most secret components of its nuclear force. 'Start 2 will change and gradually replace the psychology of confrontation,' Mr Yeltsin said. His own confrontation with parliament, however, seems far from over.

(Photograph omitted)

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