HIS BUSINESS done with President Clinton for better or for worse, President Yeltsin turned towards Europe at a weekend meeting with Finland's President Martti Ahtisaari and surprised all observers by saying that Russia wants to be a member of the EU.
Looking far less robust and healthy than he did at his joint press conference with President Clinton on Friday, Mr Yeltsin walked very stiffly, spoke slowly and once appeared to lose his train of thought. He and Mr Ahtisaari met the Finnish and Russian press at the 19th century presidential palace in central Helsinki, constructed when the Grand Duchy of Finland was a part of the Russian empire.
Asked how he would react to accession to membership of the European Union by the Baltic States, and particularly by Estonia, Mr Yeltsin said Russia had no objection to EU membership for the Baltic states. Then he astounded his listeners by proposing that Russia should join the European Union. His country was, he said, "working towards final recognition as a fully European state and we are also prepared to join the European Union".
With Russia's democracy and economy still at the "developing" stage it would naturally be quite some time before Russia could be admitted to EU membership but even if Russia did get itself together the prospect of its membership would be a daunting one for the European Union.
The former soviet president, Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, came up with the concept of a "Common European Home" stretching from the Urals to the Atlantic. But Mr Yeltsin's vision is now of a European Union which would stretch from the straits of Japan to the Aran Islands.
Russia has vast natural wealth, a population of 150 million people many of whom are very highly educated. Thus it has the potential within a generation or slightly longer to become a, or perhaps the, European economic superpower.
Russia is also hoping in the nearer future to join the World Trade Organisation, the Paris Club of creditor nations and to become the eighth member of the G-7 group of wealthy industrialised nations. Acceptance by such organisations is considered very important by Mr Yeltsin's administration as a recognition of Russia's prestige.
Finland, which shares a 1,300 km border with Russia, had the right to develop its own relations with NATO, Mr Yeltsin said, noting that in the past that country's policy of military neutrality had created a "very stable and calm balance, facilitating good neighbourly relations with Russia".
Finland is, like almost all European countries other than Ireland and Malta, a member of the NATO sponsored Partnership for Peace organisation. It has not expressed any intention of joining "NATO and appears satisfied with observer status at the Western European Union.
Reuter adds from Bonn: The German Foreign Minister, Mr Klaus Kinkel, welcomed Mr Yeltsin's desire to strengthen ties with the EU. He said that a partnership agreement Russia had with the EU, "which I did a great deal to get off the ground in 1994, "must be implemented now without delay."
Less effusive about Mr Yeltsin's new stated aims, the European Commission said it had taken note of his remarks.