MOSCOW President Boris Yeltsin stumbled and nearly fell over in confusion yesterday at the signing of a long-awaited Russia-Belarus union treaty that could put Russian troops within 100 miles of Warsaw.
Mr. Yeltsin had to be rescued from the embarrassing episode by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko during the festive Kremlin ceremony at which the two leaders signed a vaguely defined union of their Slav states.
The 68-year-old Kremlin chief became lost in his text and fumbled clumsily for 20 seconds through his reading cards as an awkward silence filled the marble Gregoryevsky Hall.
He stumbled twice, leaning back against his chair and at one point having to be supported at the elbow by Mr. Lukashenko.
“What, is this the end?” Mr. Yeltsin gruffly asked after being straightened up by Mr. Lukashenko. In a slow monotone, he finished reading the text to apparently relieved applause.
During the ceremony, Mr. Lukashenko assured Mr. Yeltsin that Russia now had a “safe and strong friend on the western border who has never sold you out.”
He also said Russian troops would from now on be stationed on the western border of Belarus where a “powerful military grouping” would be created.
Belarus’ western border abuts the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania as well as Poland, reaching in places to within 100 miles of the capital, Warsaw.
[A Polish source told The Washington Times that Belarus had already militarized its side of their common border.
[“Belarus is not a huge country only 10 million people but highly militarized. We already have some [Belarussian] military installations on the border,” said the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
[“Having additional Russian troops on the border is not only our problem but NATO’s problem.”]
“This agreement is not aimed against anyone, not even against [President] Clinton,” Mr. Yeltsin said, flashing a grin.
Mr. Yeltsin was hospitalized for a week with pneumonia before checking out of the hospital Monday and declaring he was fit to travel to China for a two-day summit.
The Kremlin said Mr. Yeltsin’s performance in no way altered his plans to leave for Beijing yesterday evening. Moscow Echo radio on Tuesday quoted medical sources as saying that doctors were strongly opposed to Mr. Yeltsin’s trip.
In China, analysts say, Mr. Yeltsin is likely to find support for attacks on Chechnya as Beijing has displayed similar tough stances against separatism.
The trip is also important as Russia fearing economic and political isolation because of Chechnya seeks to develop closer contacts with powerful Asian countries like China and old ally India.
Few observers put much credence in the union with Belarus a country with a steadily shrinking economy and a president who at times openly scorns the West.
Yesterday’s event was the fourth union signing ceremony in as many years but the earlier ones did little to pave the way for a true merging of states.
Mr. Lukashenko conceded as much, telling reporters that “this agreement might not become finalized for perhaps another five, eight or more years.”
Some 500 Belarussian nationalists took to the streets of Minsk to protest the merger. Four were arrested. Some demonstrators carried banners saying “Lukashenko is a traitor.”
Yet the idea is popular with Russian nationalists. Some 68 percent of Russians polled in October by the Public Opinion Foundation supported the merger.
Meanwhile the nationalist-led State Duma or lower house of parliament has agreed to vote on the union’s ratification on Monday.
[A press officer at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington told The Washington Times that following the signing of the Belarus-Russia union, Lithuania “restated its Western-oriented stance.
[“The Lithuanian foreign minister stated that every country had the right to unite or join already existing political, economic or defense alliances,” added Rolandas Kacinskas.
[“This right is ensured by generally accepted international documents and an agreement signed between Lithuania and Russia in 1991 and a joint resolution adopted by the presidents of Lithuania and Belarus in 1998.
[“The Lithuanian foreign minister expressed a hope that Russia will respect the right of Lithuania to join the European Union and NATO.”]