Russian President Boris Yeltsin arrived in Italy yesterday for a three-day visit. It is the Russian leader’s first overseas venture since a bout of illness earlier this winter, and a number of Italian newspapers have reportedly focused attention on Yeltsin’s health. Yeltsin’s last trip abroad, to Sweden in December, proved to be something of an embarrassment for the Kremlin. The Russian president was responsible for several diplomatic blunders and some dubious foreign policy statements. His performance led Swedish newspapers to raise serious questions about the state of Yeltsin’s health. (See Monitor, December 5)
In addition to talks with Italian leaders aimed at boosting political and trade relations, Yeltsin is also to meet during his stay with Pope John Paul. But it was clear yesterday that the crisis in the Persian Gulf will figure heavily in the president’s agenda. In an interview published by an Italian newspaper on the eve of his visit, Yeltsin professed to being concerned with Iraq "24 hours a day. Day and night, day and night." (AP, February 9) Then, on his arrival in Rome yesterday, Yeltsin told reporters that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would fly to Baghdad in order to coordinate diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the crisis in Iraq. The statement appeared to be another in a series of off-the-cuff remarks on foreign policy — like those uttered in Sweden — that have embarrassed Yeltsin. The UN secretary general announced in New York yesterday that he had canceled a planned visit to the Middle East and that he has "no plans at the moment to go to Baghdad." (AP, Reuter, Russian agencies, February 9)
Annan’s decision had to be a disappointment for Moscow. Russian diplomats would like to see the UN play a greater — and the United States a lesser — role in the Iraqi crisis. Talk of Annan’s visit, moreover, came amid rumors that Russian, French and Arab League diplomats had met with some success in their talks with Iraqi authorities. Annan’s unwillingness to travel to Baghdad suggested that Baghdad had not moved far enough toward meeting UN demands.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, a Russian diplomat yesterday reportedly passed information to the Israeli government that Iraq does not intend to take any military actions against Israel. The information was said to have been given by Iraqi authorities to Russian negotiators in Baghdad. (Xinhua, February 9) Israel has viewed the possible onset of military actions against Iraq with some mixed feelings. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired thirty-nine Scud missiles at Israel. Many Israelis fear that military strikes on Iraq now could lead to similar reprisals.
Russian Parliamentarians Still Grounded in Armenia.