Bad weather disrupts Start summit plans

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The Independent Online
IT WAS planned as the Yalta of the post-Cold War era: Black Sea summit to seal a new world order just as Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had done 48 years earlier in the seaside palace of Tsar Alexander II.

But, as with most aspects of the new order, planning has had little to do with this weekend's summit between Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin. Even symbolism can no longer be scripted.

They had planned to meet in Sochi, one of the few Black Sea resort towns still controlled by Moscow. Yalta, where the wartime allies carved up the world in February 1945, is now part of independent Ukraine. Other Black Sea towns favoured by Tsarist and Communist leaders lie in Georgia.

Best known for its therapeutic mud and sulphur baths, Sochi is President Yeltsin's favourite seaside retreat. He keeps a summer house there, plays tennis there and had planned to sign Start 2 there with President Bush. It seemed a fitting venue: an era of rivalry begun in Yalta was to be buried with a landmark treaty marking the biggest step yet towards nuclear disarmament.

Then it started to snow. By yesterday, Sochi airport was covered in ice and battered by fierce winds. Flights in and out were delayed or cancelled. Finally, President Yeltsin phoned President Bush in Somalia and suggested that they meet in Moscow instead. Mr Bush, whose 1989 Malta meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev was disrupted by bad weather, agreed.

With advance parties from the White House and Kremlin still stranded on the Black Sea, however, the change of venue has created as many problems as it solved. Organisation has been thrown into chaos. The key event remains intact - the signing tomorrow of Start 2. But the hoped for symbolism - often as important as the substance in past summits - is in tatters.

Even without the weather, though, this weekend's meeting seemed rushed and disorganised from the start. In contrast to previous summits, painstakingly arranged over many months, Presidents Bush and Yeltsin decided to meet only four days ago after their foreign ministers reached an agreement in Geneva banishing the Cold War's most fearsome nuclear weapons: land-based multiple-warhead missiles. Under the Start 2 accord, negotiated in a record time of only six months, Russia will cut its strategic warheads to around 3,000 while the US will reduce its own stock to some 3,500.

This means a cut of nearly two-quarters in the number of strategic warheads from the 1990 level.

President Bush will stay only 24 hours in Moscow, leaving for a brief visit to Paris tomorrow evening on his way home. What was to have been a triumphant diplomatic swansong has been truncated, leaving time for little more than a banquet in the Kremlin and a signing ceremony.

With little time or inclination for serious negotiation, the summit will complete a process under way for many years - leaders meeting not to discuss but merely to confirm what has already been agreed.

With little of substance at stake, Mr Yeltsin still hopes to use the encounter to bolster his authority, badly battered by last month's raucuous Congress of People's Deputies. Like Mr Gorbachev before him, he needs a diplomatic success to shore up his standing at home and blunt the attacks of foes, who forced him to dump Yegor Gaidar as prime minister.

'The event we are going to see could not happen more than once in 100 years,' he said of the summit in a televised new year's address. Start 2, he said, was the 'agreement of the century'.

It will do little, however, to appease his most diehard conservative critics, who accuse him of selling out to the West and falling into the same trap as Mr Gorbachev by seeking solace abroad for failures at home.