Kinkel rehearses Albright's Nato script

Every world-class fixture has a warm-up act, and the encounter between Madeleine Albright and Russia is no exception.

As an indignant Moscow awaited the new US Secretary of State, the second act on the bill climbed into the ring yesterday - Germany's Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel.

He came to spar with his counterpart, Yevgeny Primakov, over Nato expansion in the hope of softening up the Kremlin before the small but determined figure of Ms Albright and her bandwagon hoves into view tomorrow.

At least one new condition was discussed and won Russian approval - the prospect of an informal accord outlining the principles of Moscow's relationship with the alliance, to be signed before the July summit in Madrid, when Nato unveils its new members.

Germany is closer to Russia than any other Western power, and has pursued a more conciliatory line over the Atlantic alliance than the United States.

But Mr Kinkel is unlikely to have departed much from Ms Albright's main script - yes to a Russia-Nato council and no to a Russian veto over Nato affairs.

His mission coincided with a sharp rise in the volume of the Nato debate in Russia.

It has become the issue of the hour, with the exception of the future of President Boris Yeltsin.

Moscow's fractious political elite is almost unanimously opposed to the alliance's eastward march, which has left Russia feeling threatened and at risk of a surge in anti-Western, nationalist sentiment.

No doubt sensing differences within Nato's 16 members, the Russians have been pressing their case harder than ever.

This week Mr Primakov told Russia's NTV that Russia's concerns could be met by revising the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty to specify national arms limits, thus restricting Nato's ability to introduce extra troops and weaponry to its new territory.

And Russia is continuing to press for the right to exercise specific control over the activities of the alliance.

Mr Primakov stressed that Moscow regards it as "mandatory" that the two sides have a legally binding charter defining Russia's relations with the alliance, though Nato has pledged to refuse anything that smacks of a veto.

Yesterday Igor Ivanov, the deputy foreign minister, weighed in with an interview with the Interfax news agency: "If you think that it is impossible to build or think of true security in Europe without Russia - and everyone is saying that today - let us put it down.

"Let us find a form in which decisions on fundamental European security matters would be made jointly by Nato and Russia."

While the Nato debate will dominate the headlines, huge interest will also focus on the performance of Mr Yeltsin.

These are testing times. One paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, has alleged that the President's wife, Naina, has been urging him to stand down, a report which prompted the Kremlin to accuse the offending reporter of "HG Wells-style fiction" and to revoke his accreditation.

Ominous rumours have been circulating of Mr Yeltsin's 66th birthday party, most of which he is said to have spent stretched out on a couch.

Looking puffy-faced but relatively alert, Mr Yeltsin yesterday met Yasser Arafat. But it will take more than a short choreographed public appearances to convince the world he is well enough to govern.

Everyone is waiting to see how he performs over the next few weeks. The biggest hurdle comes on 6 March, when he is to deliver his state-of-the- nation address to parliament. After that, it is the Helsinki summit with Bill Clinton on 20 March.

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