Unsteady Yeltsin rebuffed by CIS

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On his first trip out of Russia since sending troops into Chechnya nine weeks ago, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday staggered into a meeting with leaders of 11 former Soviet republics, reviving memories of past shenanigans on foreign trips.

With anxiety over Mr Yeltsin and Russia's intentions heightened by the Caucasus war, a Commonwealth of Independent States summit in the Kazakh capital of Alma-Ata rebuffed Russian proposals for joint defence of external borders. Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan opposed the plan.

As with most such gatherings over the past three years, it ended with promises of closer co-operation and a slew of documents to add to some 400 statements of intent signed since the break-up of the Soviet Union. New documents include agreements on rail links and customs as well as a toothless memorandum - instead of a binding pact as suggested by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev - of "peace and stability" urging states not to put military, political and economic pressure on each other.

The summit did nothing to clarify what Russia has come to regard as a key security issue - the protection of former Soviet borders with Eastern European as well as with Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and China. Moscow has troops in Tajikistan manning the border with Afghanistan but Russian proposals would have given Moscow control over a radar system established to protect the Soviet Union from nuclear attack.

Russia's embattled Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, this week described the CIS defence system as the weakest link in border security and called for the creation of an integrated general force for air defence.

Moscow is unusually preoccupied with air defence. A fortnight ago, after the scheduled launch of a Norwegian research rocket, Mr Yeltsin said he had used his nuclear communications "suitcase" to consult top commanders for the first time.

Western military observers are divided over whether the Kremlin feels genuinely jittery or whether it is using the issue to remind the world and public opinion at home that Mr Yeltsin remains the ultimate master of a formidable nuclear arsenal.

Mr Yeltsin, visibly shaky as he entered the hall for a closed session, delivered a report on the war in Chechnya, which serves as an unnerving signal of the Moscow leadership's apparent state of mind.

On the few occasions reporters were allowed near him Mr Yeltsin's slurred speech and difficulty in moving around gave the impression of a sick or drunken man.

In Berlin last year Mr Yeltsin appeared drunk as he conducted a military band. A few weeks later, he failed to leave his plane for a meeting at Shannon airport with the then Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds.