Chirac confident of agreement on NATO expansion after Yeltsin


THE subject matter of the talks between President Jacques Chirac and President Boris Yeltsin was the eastward expansion of NATO, and progress was made to the extent that Mr Chirac expressed confidence that agreement could be reached before the alliance's Madrid summit in July.

But most interest yesterday cent red on the health of the Russian President, who won reelection last July but effectively has been incapable of beginning his second term.

As usual, Kremlin officials put the best face they could on Mr Yeltsin's condition, pointing out that his meeting with Mr Chirac lasted three hours, an hour longer than anticipated, and that Mr Chirac had described Mr Yeltsin as being completely on top of his brief and, as usual, very well informed on major world issues.

The television coverage showed a somewhat feeble looking Mr Yeltsin with a forced and almost permanent smile for the official Kremlin cameras, which transmitted some brief shots of him from long and medium range. These were quickly replaced by a still photograph of Mr Yeltsin looking very healthy indeed.

Following his recuperation from a quintuple by pass operation in November Mr Yeltsin contracted double pneumonia, according to the official Kremlin sources, but communists with the assistance of the German newspaper Bild have suggested he has Parkinson's disease, and there are consistent rumours that he suffered a stroke shortly before the second of the presidential elections at the end of June 1996.

Rumours about Mr Yeltsin's health have gained ground partly because the official statements decreased significantly in credibility after they told the Russian people he had a "sore throat" when in fact it was later proved he was in urgent need of open heart surgery.

Russia has strongly opposed NATO's eastward expansion, and it was hoped that Mr Chirac's visit yesterday might help to bring the two sides closer together, and the statements from both sides yesterday expressed considerable optimism on the subject.

But Mr Yeltsin's help would be an important factor in the issue if it were needed to push a compromise agreement through the Russian parliament, which is totally opposed to any eastward move on NATO's part.

The talks, held at the official dacha in Novo Ogaryovo, outside Moscow were described by Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Mr Sergei Yaztrzhcmbsky, as "substantial". Mr Yeltsin, he said, was "very satisfied with the results". The President had reiterated Russia's opposition to NATO expansion, and Mr Chirac had expressed understanding for Russia's concern on the issue, Mr Yaztrzhembsky said.

At the Vnukovo 2 VIP airport outside Moscow, Mr Chirac, before his departure for Paris, was clearly upbeat in his assessment of the meeting and said his country would not oppose the idea of a separate and binding treaty between Russia and NATO as part of a compromise deal.

NATO's Madrid summit is expected to confirm applications for membership by former eastern bloc countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, a move that Russia considers will lead to the drawing of a new line of division in Europe.

The difficulties facing those who are trying to reach a compromise were underlined yesterday when the speaker of the State Duma, Mr Gennady Seleznyov, on a visit to Poland, told reporters that Russia felt that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact had put an end to all military blocs. "Now, we see plans for expansion, while there is a strong belief in our country that NATO in the 21st century is a relic of the past."