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Western Press Review: When Yeltsin Speaks, The World Wonders

  • Don Hill

Prague, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's talk in Sweden yesterday and Tuesday of unilateral cuts in nuclear arms and forces was significant, radical, surprising, misinterpreted, or the product of an unwell mind --- depending on which Western press commentary one reads.

GUARDIAN: Russia is to make deep cuts in army divisions and naval units on its western frontier

At one pole, a London Guardian news analysis by James Meek in Moscow and David Fairhall in Brussels treats the forces reduction as an accomplished deed. They write: "Russia is to make deep cuts in army divisions and naval units on its western frontier, President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday, undermining the Baltic states' case for speedy NATO entry and effectively acknowledging that there is no Western military threat to his country.

"The surprise move will leave little more than a thin screen of Russian ground troops between European Russia and its Polish, Baltic and Scandinavian neighbors after January 1, 1999."

WASHINGTON POST: Yeltsin's plans for both land and naval force cuts

In the Washington Post today, Daniel Williams' news analysis describes a meaningful "pledge" in the western forces announcement. He writes: "President Boris Yeltsin pledged Wednesday to cut Russian military forces around the Baltic states by 40 percent, a shift in Russia's stated defense posture as it adapts to an expanding NATO alliance."

Williams writes: "At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev affirmed Yeltsin's plans for both land and naval force cuts. Sergeyev said troops will be pulled from Kaliningrad, which is a Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland, as well as from the St. Petersburg area. The Russian Baltic and Northern fleets also would be reduced in size, he said.

"Analysts in Moscow said the proposal appeared aimed at assuring Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that Russia is no threat to them, in line with Moscow's assertion that they need not join NATO for self-defense. All three countries rejected a recent Russian proposal to offer them security guarantees."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The health of Russian President Boris Yeltsin is once again giving cause for concern

But German commentator Markus Zydra, writing in today's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, interprets Yeltsin's haphazard talk Tuesday of deep cuts in nuclear arms as a signs of mental ill health. Zydra writes: "The health of Russian President Boris Yeltsin is once again giving cause for concern. On Tuesday, he announced unexpectedly in a speech during a three-day visit to Sweden that Russia's nuclear arsenal was to be cut by another third -- unilaterally."

The writer says: "Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who stood behind the president, was visibly confused during the speech and, at one stage, he leaned forward and whispered something in Yeltsin's ear." And adds: "Yeltsin's speech was at times difficult to understand and he appeared to be oblivious to the embarrassed head shaking by Swedish politicians and journalists. The 66-year-old Yeltsin stood stiffly before the microphone and spoke distractedly and unclearly. His face was blank, his eyes empty and his hand movements weak." Zydra writes: "Yeltsin's tendency to depart from prepared texts during his foreign visits to surprise the world has this year become something more than a mere quirk."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Yeltsin's comments were a deliberate statement of policy

Yeltsin's promise yesterday of conventional forces cuts seemed as deliberate as his Tuesday mention of nuclear arms reduction appeared spontaneous and unconsidered, an analysis by Alexander Nicoll and Tim Burt says in today's issues of the British newspaper Financial Times. The writers say of yesterday's announcement: "It was his second dramatic attempt in two days to reduce concerns among Russia's European neighbors about future military threats from Moscow." They write: "Mr. Yeltsin's comments, in a speech to the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, were a deliberate statement of policy, in contrast to his off-the-cuff promise on Tuesday of a further one-third cut in nuclear warheads, which was interpreted in the West as offering nothing new."

They write: "Although the precise import of yesterday's undertaking was unclear, it was cautiously welcomed in Brussels, where defense ministers of the NATO alliance were meeting their Russian counterpart, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, within the structure of the NATO/Russia Permanent Joint Council."

TIMES: Mr. Yeltsin was feeling 'a little tired'.

Both days' announcements seemed to take Yeltsin's own government by surprise, defense corespondent Michael Evans writes in today's Times of London. With colleague Robin Lodge in Moscow, Evans says also that yesterday's evidently serious undertaking added credence to Tuesday's more slapdash comments.

Evans and Lodge write: "Mr. Yeltsin's announcement was the second surprise to emerge during his visit to Sweden. Earlier this week he declared that Russia would unilaterally reduce its nuclear warheads by one third. Russian officials tried to explain that such cuts were not imminent and that the President was merely expressing the general desire to go beyond the reductions already agreed with the United States. One official said Mr. Yeltsin was feeling 'a little tired'. "Any speculation that the declaration on nuclear cuts was the result of over-enthusiastic acceptance of Swedish hospitality was dampened by the second announcement, made in the sober light of a Stockholm winter morning. But it caused no less consternation among Mr Yeltsin's entourage."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Yeltsin has made it a feature of his trips abroad to present his host with a colorful political gift

A Los Angeles Times news analysis today by Vanora Bennett adopts expressions such as "surprise," "bewildered," "exasperated," and "increasingly eccentric." She writes: "President Boris N. Yeltsin's latest series of surprise announcements on Russia's disarmament plans, made on his current state visit to Sweden, have once again bewildered the West and exasperated aides trying to persuade the increasingly eccentric leader to keep to an official script. His spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, tactfully downplayed Yeltsin's first startling gesture on Tuesday night -- a promise to cut Russia's nuclear warheads by a third and seek a total world ban on atomic weaponry -- by hastily explaining that the Russian leader was 'tired' after a long day and that he had done no more than shed some light on talks under way with the United States.

"But, first thing (yesterday) morning, Yeltsin, 66, resumed his ways, this time with a second dramatic promise, to the Swedish parliament, to unilaterally cut Russia's ground and naval forces by at least 40 percent from Jan. 1, 1999. 'Listen to this, and evaluate it,' he exhorted, looking up with a sudden grin from his text. His audience -- confused lawmakers and an anxious Yastrzhembsky -- answered with silence.

She writes: "Since returning to work this spring after a year of serious health problems, including quintuple heart bypass surgery last year and a bad winter bout of pneumonia, Yeltsin, a natural showman, has made it a feature of his trips abroad to present his host with a colorful political gift in the shape of some startling new concession."

Bennett added: "While these presidential remarks often turn out to have little substance, they have come to be a recurring headache for staff atop Russia's hierarchical power structures."