Yeltsin pushes old rival into the cold

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BORIS YELTSIN inflicted fresh humiliations on Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday, forcing his old rival to abandon a trip to Italy and accusing him of conspiring in a cover-up of Soviet atrocities against Poland in the Second World War. Mr Gorbachev had intended to fly to Milan last night on a 10-day visit during which he was scheduled to see the Pope and senior Italian politicians. But he had to call off the trip after the Russian authorities said his passport was not valid for Italy.

The Mayor of Florence, Giorgio Morales, yesterday protested to President Yeltsin over his refusal to let Mr Gorbachev visit Italy and hinted it might cost him his honorary citizenship of the city. Mr Morales reminded the Russian President he had been made an honorary citizen of Florence a few days after the abortive coup in 1991. Now, he said, 'your decision violates the principles of liberty and democracy which were at the basis of the honour which the city of Florence gave you'.

Mr Gorbachev was to have received an honorary citizenship of Florence himself during his visit. He will still be allowed to travel to Germany for the funeral of Willy Brandt, the former West German chancellor. But the chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, described this as 'a humanitarian gesture', and it appeared likely that the authorities made the concession partly because of Western indignation at Mr Gorbachev's treatment.

Mr Zorkin said there was no question of letting Mr Gorbachev visit countries other than Germany until he testified to the Constitutional Court on the activities of the now defunct Soviet Communist Party, which he led from 1985 until last year.

The authorities say the travel ban is legal because, as under the old Soviet system, a Russian needs special permission each time he seeks to leave the country. None the less the ban appears to conflict with official commitments to freedom of travel, and recent actions against Mr Gorbachev bear the stamp of a deliberate campaign of harassment.

Mr Yeltsin has grown impatient with Mr Gorbachev because of the outspoken criticisms which the former president has levelled at Russia's new leadership since the downfall of Communism. Mr Yeltsin clearly feels that it is high time for his rival to accept that his political career is over. If he does not, Mr Yeltsin has made it plain that he has more weapons at his disposal. His spokesman released documents yesterday purporting to show that Mr Gorbachev had helped conceal the truth about the Soviet slaughter of more than 15,000 Polish officers in 1940.