MOSCOW (Reuter) — Russian President Boris Yeltsin faced a worsening row over NATO’s eastward expansion plans and new pressure to resign Wednesday–but doctors said he was still weak after pneumonia and needed more time to recover.
Heart surgeon Renat Akchurin said Yeltsin–who has been recuperating at a state residence outside Moscow and has spent little time at the Kremlin since leaving the hospital last month–said he needed at least 10 or 15 more days to recover properly.
"Pneumonia is not a joke and there should be no haste in the recovery process," Akchurin– who conducted a heart bypass operation on Yeltsin on November 5–told Itar-Tass news agency.
He said the 66-year-old president’s recovery was going "as it should" but he was "somewhat weak ened" and needed time to restore his strength and put on weight.
Doctors have said Yeltsin–who has spent most of the last seven months out of the Kremlin–is determined to get back to full-time work as soon as possible.
But recent television pictures have shown him looking much thinner than when he was re-elected last July and sometimes with a glazed expression. Meanwhile–Russia’s problems are mounting.
Despite his absence from the Kremlin–Yeltsin has made resistance to NATO’s plans to take in former Warsaw Pact member states from eastern and central Europe a priority task.
Increasing a verbal offensive that has intensified in recent weeks–presidential press secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky accused NATO of pursuing a covert anti-Moscow policy.
He said NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana had "undeclared–behind-the-scenes" aims in making a tour of the former Soviet republics of Georgia–Moldova–Armenia and Azerbaijanwith which Moscow is trying to strengthen ties.
"The West as a whole–and the leadership of NATO in particular–is opposed to any form of political or military integration between the newly independent statesthe republics of the former USSR– especially when they are initiated by Moscow," Yastrzhembsky told Interfax news agency.
NATO officials quickly dismissed the charges–which partly reflected Moscow’s nervousness over its southern flank.
"NATO does not regard at all the relationship between these countries and NATO and the relationship between these countries and Russia as mutually exclusive," one source told Reuters.
Solana–visiting Georgia–said Russia had "misconceptions and stereotypes" in its thinking about NATO.
Wednesday’s exchange worsened the fight over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion plans–which Moscow says threaten its security–open new divisions in Europe and play into the hands of Yeltsin’s political foes.
As the war of words raged–two likely presidential challengers renewed their criticism of Yeltsin.
Alexander Lebed–ousted by Yeltsin as national security adviser last October–set out his views after attending the swearing in of former commander Aslan Maskhadov as president of the rebel Chechnya region.
"The system is rotting–soon it will fall apart," Lebed said–deepening Kremlin embarrassment after a ceremony which underlined the strength of Chechnya’s independence drive following a 21-month war in which it humiliated Russian troops.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said Yeltsin’s ability to rule would be determined by his performance in an annual speech which he is due to make to parliament in the next few weeks and at a summit with President Bill Clinton in March.
"I am sure these two dates will be the determining ones–I mean in terms of the president’s ability to adopt any decisions at all," Zyuganov told a news conference.
"The president continues to be incapacitated…everything is falling to pieces in front of our eyes."
The upper house of parliament provided one piece of good news for Yeltsin by approving the government’s 1997 budget.
The budget was passed by the lower house last month and now requires only Yeltsin’s formal approval to come into force.
NATO military exercises have already begun in Georgia–following Solona’s departure from Tbilisi.