Yeltsin appeals to the West for help

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin of Russia yesterday appealed for urgent economic assistance to head off what he called a Communist revival, warning that if the West offered no help within the next three months 'it may be too late'.

'I see that democracy and reform are confronted with a very great threat,' he said during a joint press conference with the visiting French President, Francois Mitterrand. 'There is clearly an attempt afoot to restore the Communist regime of the Soviets.'

It was Mr Yeltsin's first appearance in public since storming out of a session of the Congress of People's Deputies on Friday. He shed no light, however, on what he plans to do next, saying only that he was 'investigating the scope of the political damage inflicted by the Congress'.

According to Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, the Kremlin has been flooded with letters demanding decisive action to block Congress, which meets again in June for a further onslaught on the President's authority. Coal-miners and radical trade unions have urged Mr Yeltsin to suspend Congress and declare emergency presidential rule. Calmer voices say he should stick instead with plans for a plebiscite.

Yesterday Mr Yeltsin said several changes - 'three, four or five people' - would be made soon in the cabinet, but gave no names and insisted the reshuffle was a response to incompetence, not pressure from the Congress, elected in 1990 and stacked with factory directors, state-farm managers and other Communist Party loyalists.

The only clear message was that he wants Western economic aid now and cannot wait until a meeting of the seven largest Western industrialised nations (G7) in Tokyo this summer: 'Russia not only needs support today but urgently. If we wait for Tokyo in June or July, it may be too late.'

Mr Mitterrand said he was ready to help organise a G7 meeting to discuss Russia's crisis immediately after Mr Yeltsin's summit with President Bill Clinton in Vancouver on 4 April.

Mr Yeltsin welcomed the suggestion. Mr Mitterrand's support, however, will perhaps remind him of how fickle the West can be: when Mr Yeltsin visited Paris two years ago, Mr Mitterrand saw him only briefly, for fear of offending Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, he met Anatoly Lukyanov, head of the now disbanded Soviet parliament and one of 12 men facing treason charges for their role in the 1991 coup attempt.

Hardline politicians have pounced on parallels between Mr Gorbachev and Mr Yeltsin and warn the West not to back what they see as a fading star. 'Mr Yeltsin will be out of power very quickly,' said Mikhail Astafyev, a leader of the Russian Unity bloc.' The United States always wants to make a 100 per cent investment in a single political figure.' Yesterday Mr Yeltsin also suggested the West had got Russia wrong, but insisted the mistake was to have underestimated the danger of a Communist resurgence: 'I believe the Western world and Western countries did not understand the reality of revanchism before the eighth Congress.'

Paris, London and other Western capitals have offered moral support to Mr Yeltsin but are reluctant to provide large amounts of cash. To do so, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said last week, was like putting money 'into a pocket with holes in it'.

How much money Russia has already received is hotly debated. Some insist the West has largely delivered on a promise made by George Bush, then president, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl last April to provide an aid package worth dollars 24bn ( pounds 17bn). Most of the money disbursed, however, has been in the form of short-term loans and the bulk of a dollars 4.5bn credit from the International Monetary Fund has been held up by Russia's failure to control credit and meet other guidelines.

At the end of the Congress session on Saturday, the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, scoffed at US pledges of economic aid: 'They promised a lot to Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, first for ruining Comecon and the Warsaw Pact and then for ruining the Soviet Union. But the (US) Congress did not allocate a single cent. Why should American workers pay for our mistakes?'