Wavering Yeltsin

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 June, 1999, 12:00am

The United States and Russia are back in business, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser declared. To judge by the warm words at the weekend summit of leading industrialised nations in Germany, the differences which led to the confrontation between Russian and Nato troops in Kosovo are a thing of the past.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin appeared at the summit in his best, Western-friendly mood. But the country he returned to is in deep trouble, and that should act as a damper on any premature celebrations.

Eight years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Mr Yeltsin's assumption of power, Russia remains a mass of contradiction. Reassuring as Mr Yeltsin may have been at the Cologne meeting, his country's performance in Kosovo raised many doubts not only about the strength of his leadership but also about the attitude of the military commanders who sit on top of a huge nuclear arsenal.

The country is a democracy, but anti-democratic forces are strong. The constant changes of prime minister have created confusion at the top, exacerbated by Mr Yeltsin's eccentricities. The economy is in a mess; corruption is rampant; crime is booming and taxes remain uncollected. But still Washington and the other nations in the G8 group treat it as a great power, rather than what it has come to be known as: a failed power.

The danger for them is that Mr Yeltsin may be increasingly unable to deliver on agreements which he makes on sunny weekends with other world leaders.

In terms of international relations, Kosovo has not produced the great split between Russia and the West which some feared. But that may be as much because of Moscow's weakness as out of any true fellow feeling born from the differences that emerged this spring. As things stand, there appears to be no viable alternative to Mr Yeltsin; but the West needs to exercise great care to ensure that it does not tie itself too closely to a regime whose fundamental weaknesses are all too apparent.