Message for Yeltsin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 1999, 12:00am

The Charter for European Security and the treaty to limit conventional forces in Europe signed in Istanbul yesterday by 30 countries including the United States and Russia are being hailed as landmarks. But they risk being overshadowed by the worsening of relations between Moscow and the West symbolised by Boris Yeltsin walking out of the proceedings on Thursday.

The immediate cause of the rift is Moscow's war in its Caucasian republic of Chechnya. Apart from Western concern at the brutality of the Russian attack, Moscow has admitted that it is already breaching military ceilings agreed in the new treaty. In its anxiety to get Moscow's signature to the pact, the West has let Mr Yeltsin get away with committing himself to cutting back Russian forces after they have finished the attack.

The Istanbul agreement cannot mask the fact that relations between Moscow and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War ended at the beginning of the 1990s. Chechnya is only part of an increasingly wide range of differences between Moscow and the countries which once hailed Mr Yeltsin as the man who would bring in democracy and economic growth after seven decades of Communist rule.

On the domestic front, the Russian economy is sinking fast and next year's presidential election is taking on a nasty appearance and some of the freedoms Mr Yeltsin has defended in the past appear under attack. Internationally, Moscow is anxious to preserve its sphere of influence, particularly in the oil-rich Caucasus, whatever the cost. That conflicts with the new approach pioneered by Nato over Kosovo. Moscow is also dragging its feet over arms control.

Despite Mr Yeltsin's many failings, the general view has been that there is no better option. The current trend, however, raises the question of whether he has embarked on policies which risk turning the clock back to the Cold War. That would be serious not only for the world, but for Russia itself. It is time for other countries to tell Russia quite clearly what they think of the way it is acting.