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Western Press Review: Putin's 'Act of Generosity,' The Russian Army's Sorry State, And Finding the Answer in Riga

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of media analysis and commentary today finds discussion of Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to dissolve his government yesterday; military incompetence and fighting a never-ending war against terror; the "heady wine" -- and hangovers -- of a fledgling democracy; and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's visit to Washington, which comes amid a media crackdown in the Caucasus state that is garnering widespread international condemnation.


A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial today discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to sack his government, just weeks before the 14 March presidential election. The paper says the ostensible reason for the move is that Putin "wants to signal to voters before the election the direction in which he plans to take policy afterwards."

"Another sign of the Kremlin playing fast and loose with the niceties of electoral democracy."
In any other country, "the normal order of things is to win an election first, and then announce future cabinet members and policy direction," the "Journal" remarks. And yet, given Putin's "almost dictatorial powers and unassailable popularity, his decision to inform voters of his intentions ahead of time might even be considered an act of generosity."

The paper says it "would be nice" if the government's new cast of characters was a portent of renewed reforms. But "reshuffling the government and even some acceleration of economic reform will not be enough," it says. "Whatever this government's deficiencies, it had a decent record of liberalization. The real brakes on reform, and the origins of so much uncertainty in Russia, come from the Kremlin, and the way Mr. Putin's inner circle, with its heavy contingent of former KGB hands, exercises its vast and growing powers."


A "Moscow Times" editorial says the celebrations this week in Russia of Armed Services Day "[belied] the army's sorry state." The images of pageantry broadcast on television "were a frivolous distraction from reality: the guerrilla war in Chechnya; the navy's inability to fire missiles during an exercise last week; or the conscript who froze to death after being forced to wait on an airfield in December."

The paper says, "Colossal incompetence and a shocking disregard for the well-being of ordinary soldiers are the flip side of Russia's proud military tradition."

Veterans of all wars deserve the "financial and moral support" of the governments that sent them into combat. But this is not the case in Putin's Russia nor in the America of President George W. Bush. "Both presidents bristle at the suggestion that their respective wars might do more to stoke terrorism than stifle it. And while countless veterans of Afghanistan or Vietnam still fight daily battles for a dignified civilian existence, Putin and Bush deck themselves out in uniforms for cheap photo ops."

The "old Soviet guard" and the "reformed cold warriors in the White House [have] found the perfect new enemy: terrorists. A never-ending fight against terrorism justifies any military adventure," the paper observes with scorn.

"But as soldiers in Chechnya and Iraq are discovering themselves, 'defense' is often code for wars of questionable justification."


In a column entitled "Return to Riga," columnist William Safire of "The New York Times" asks: "Can people who have been taught only submission for generations, who are strangers to democracy, be trusted to govern themselves?" He says this is the very question the U.S.-led coalition is facing in Iraq today. And the same question will need to be answered in the event of a revolution in Iran or after the current uprising in Haiti comes to an end, one way or another.

Safire suggests looking for an answer in Riga, "the beautiful capital of Latvia, a northern European nation conquered by Hitler before [the United States] entered World War II. He traded it to Stalin, and Latvians lived under oppression and Russian colonization for two generations."

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvians "suffered the anguish of raw democracy." Following years of intimidation by Russia, Latvia is now "trying to embrace Europe without forgetting that America is their most reliable friend." In the same way, the Kurds of Iraq "have emerged from a U.S.-protected decade of tribal rivalries to show other Iraqi Muslims how their regional parliamentary progress can be a national example."

Safire writes: "Democracy is heady wine and causes initial hangovers. But given a chance to become a habit, the exhilarating experience of freedom enriches and ennobles people. That's hard to believe until you've seen it with your own eyes."


Russian and Eurasian affairs analyst Ariel Cohen of the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation says Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's visit to Washington this week comes at a time "of geopolitical uncertainty in the Caucasus, with Moscow and Washington potentially on a collision course."

Saakashvili is being forced to do a "delicate balancing act" with foreign policy, as Georgia becomes a major focus of U.S. and Russian attempts to gain regional influence. His Washington visit is expected to include requests for increased security cooperation with the U.S. and greater economic assistance. The Georgian leader is also scheduled to meet with World Bank and International Monetary Fund representatives.

But Cohen says, "Russian leaders are loathe to lose any influence in what they consider to be their strategic backyard." Many in Russian policy circles "remain suspicious of his intentions," particularly what regional security cooperation with the U.S. will mean for Moscow. Cohen says Russian President Vladimir Putin's dismissal of his cabinet yesterday is one indication that he is "planning to get tough on CIS states." Comments made during a 12 February televised speech additionally hinted that the Kremlin "would be justified in adopting tougher policies" toward the CIS.

A majority in Washington policy circles "believe Russia will ratchet up its involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia" after 14 March presidential elections. But regardless of any policy shift in the Kremlin, Cohen says Washington "will remain intent on supporting Georgian democratization efforts and pushing for the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline."


Writing in France's leading daily, "Le Monde," Laurent Zecchini discusses the proposed handover of peacekeeping duties in Bosnia from NATO to a European Union defense force by the end of the year. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a meeting of European foreign ministers this week in Brussels that any substitute European force would have to equal that of NATO and would not indicate a scaling back of involvement in the Balkans. The NATO force is expected to consist of approximately 7,000 men at the time of the December handover.

After months of "delicate negotiations," the United States finally accepted the idea of a greater role for European defense, which will be governed by the principles of the "Berlin plus" accord that regulates relations between NATO and the EU. The principles of the Berlin agreement allow for the EU to use the means and capacities of NATO.

The European Union's mission in Bosnia will be key, since, as Solana noted, the union's main goal will be to help Bosnia eventually integrate into EU and NATO institutions. The role of the Atlantic alliance is expected to be scaled back to no more than 150 men, and will be charged with concentrating on tracking down war criminals. The United States will, in addition, maintain a few hundred soldiers on its bases in Tuzla. These three independent military forces, which will operate in the region in addition to the Bosnian authorities, will not necessarily find themselves in conflict or working at cross-purposes. But in order to avoid this, Zecchini says a greater clarification of policy will be necessary.


An editorial in the London-based "Financial Times" muses that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have wanted to get rid of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov for a long time "as a hangover from the Yeltsin era." Kasyanov was also outspokenly critical of Putin's decision to jail Yukos oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, a judgment that Putin likely did not appreciate.

But the paper says Kasyanov's dismissal yesterday -- along with other members of the Russian cabinet -- took place "even before next month's presidential election, [and] seems to indicate Mr. Putin feels he already has that election won." The paper calls this "another sign of the Kremlin playing fast and loose with the niceties of electoral democracy in a way that the European Union has been so ineffectual in opposing. It is therefore welcome that EU states should have decided earlier this week to take a tougher approach to Russia."

The "FT" says EU policy toward Russia "collapsed visibly into disarray" late last year. A lack of EU unity prevailed on issues regarding Russian policy on Chechnya, the war in Iraq, and the war on terrorism, with some member states hailing the Kremlin as an ally and others being harshly critical. Moscow, for its part, has "objected to EU commentaries on its internal affairs and to EU efforts to woo the countries that lie between them."

But the paper says, "in today's world, domestic policies are a matter of common concern, particularly when they go wrong." It advises Putin to also realize "that countries such as Ukraine and Moldova are legitimate partners for Europe -- and no longer in the U.S.S.R."