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Baltics : Yeltsin's Pronouncements Cause Headaches

By Simon Saradzhyan and Don Hill

Moscow, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russia, land of traditions, is developing a fresh one: sweeping up after Boris Yeltsin.

The respected, independent nationwide newspaper Izvestia says in today's editions that "clarifying" President Yeltsin's utterances is a habit attaining that status of tradition.

Yeltsin is due back in Moscow today from Stockholm. His three-day official visit to Sweden captured broad international attention with two dramatic and unexpected announcements. He told the Swedish parliament yesterday that Russia will cut its ground and naval forces in its northwestern region by 40 percent by 1999. All three Baltic states welcomed the promise to reduce Russian forces near their borders. Earlier, on Tuesday, he announced that Russia -- on its own -- will slash its nuclear arsenal by a third.

A writer in the Times of London speculated today that Yeltsin's first, well. . . bombshell, might have resulted from "over-enthusiastic acceptance of Swedish hospitality." Yeltsin's penchant for celebratory imbibing has been remarked frequently in the world's press.

But the second announcement, the Times' writer pointed out, "was made in the sober light of a Stockholm winter morning."

Izvestia was unable to find an official at the Armed Forces General Staff, the Strategic Missiles Forces Main Command, or the Foreign Ministry who would comment. As Izvestia put it: " 'No comment,' the generals stated."

The newspaper says that Yeltsin's sensational statement about unilateral nuclear reductions, in Izvestia's words, "demanded urgent explanation."

An hour after Yeltsin's press conference remarks in Stockholm, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky smoothly described Yeltsin's remarks as, in his words a "unilateral initiative," which, Yastrzhembsky said, was different from a "unilateral decision." If there appeared to be ambiguity, Yastrzhembsky said, it was because the president was a little tired.

Izvestia was unimpressed. The newspaper put it this way: "None of this sounds very convincing." The article went on to say: "The generally accepted practice of clarifications whereby the press services of all the world's politicians smooth over their masters' clumsy utterances, is turning into something of a tradition in Russia."

In Brussels, where Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev was meeting with NATO member-nation defense chiefs, Sergeyev told reporters that what he called "drastic cuts" along the western borders were nothing new. But he flatly denied that Russia would reduce its nuclear weapons arsenal unless the West matched the reductions.

RFE/RL in Moscow had better luck than did Izvestia in finding officials who would comment on the Yeltsin undertakings. General Vladimir Serebryanikov, senior researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Socio-Political Studies, told RFE/RL, in his words: "This is nothing but a poorly-planned gift that (Yeltsin) would like to impress his Western counterparts with."

Leonid Shebarshin, who briefly headed the KGB in 1991, told RFE/RL that Yeltsin actually was describing border troop cuts made necessary by Russia's economic situation, not dictated by diplomatic concerns. A writer for the Los Angeles Times, Moscow correspondent Vanora Bennett, notes in today's editions that Yeltsin has stumbled over international pronouncements before in the recent past.

Here's how she puts it:

"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.

"Most famous of the gestures was his May announcement, at a NATO summit in Paris, that Russia would remove nuclear warheads from its missiles. The Kremlin was swift to explain that what the president had really meant was that the missiles would no longer be aimed at NATO members.

"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."