Yeltsin preaches anti-war line to sympathetic Italy

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The Independent Online
HE WAS doddery on his feet and sometimes befuddled, which is par for the course when Boris Yeltsin ventures abroad these days. Yet the Russian President firmly held his political ground in Rome yesterday with a warning that bombing Iraq could produce a "big conflagration".

During a day marred by minor slips and fleeting moments of confusion, Mr Yeltsin made clear he is unrepentant about his operatic predictions last week that the crisis could precipitate a third world war. A consummate headline-grabber, his overall aim is to use the Iraq crisis to restore some of Russia's diplomatic clout globally, and outshine other opponents of military action, notably France and China.

But his aides were yesterday pursuing a more short-term goal - piloting the 67-year-old President through his first foreign outing since his last bout of illness over Christmas. They painfully recall his last, disastrous, trip to Sweden in December, when he made impromptu offers of nuclear disarmament, chastised officials in front of the Swedish king and appeared, at one point, to believe he was in Norway.

No sooner had he set foot in Italy on Monday than he managed another gaffe by declaring that Russia had persuaded the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to go to Baghdad. Yesterday he sought to extract himself from the muddle, claiming that Mr Annan had second thoughts after coming under political pressure.

Overall, however, Mr Yeltsin has got his main message across in Italy. He foresaw a poshar, or fire, he warned, at a joint press conference with the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, "That is what is worrying both of us".

Yesterday evening, Mr Yeltsin headed for a photo-opportunity which promised to make his point even more resoundingly - an audience (his second) with Pope John Paul ll, who concurs with his views on Iraq. Mr Yeltsin will have been acutely aware of the impact of sharing a camera shot with the 77-year-old Pontiff, and showing the world that they have more in common than fame, poor health, and experience of life under Soviet Communism.

However, the meeting is unlikely to have been entirely amicable. Relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches - which have been locked in a feud that dates back to the Great Schism of 1054 - have worsened since the end of the Soviet Union.

In particular, the Vatican is fuming over Russia's legislation on freedom of conscience, which Mr Yeltsin signed into law last year, ignoring a personal written plea by the Pope. The law recognises Russia's traditional religions - Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam - but imposes potentially restrictive conditions on newcomers.

Its critics say that in Russia it is not the letter of the law that matters but the message it conveys to officialdom. So, while Catholics have so far not felt any direct impact, their priests are now experiencing bureaucratic difficulties getting Russian visas.

Despite this, the opening of a dialogue with Orthodoxy is one of the few remaining ambitions of this Papacy. It is, however, one he is unlikely to fulfil. His hopes were dealt a blow in 1996 when the Russian Patriarch, Alexei 11, cancelled a planned meeting after pressure from hardcore conservative clerics.

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