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Western Press Review: A Thorn in the Foot of the Bear

  • Don Hill
  • Katarzyna Wysocka



Prague, 19 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Much Western press commentary concentrated over the weekend on the rout of Russian forces by the Chechen guerrillas in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Shaky truce seems to be holding among Russia's fractious politicians

In the British newspaper today, John Thornhill sums up the situation from Moscow as follows: "Russian and Chechen negotiators tried at the weekend to reinforce the fragile ceasefire agreement in the breakaway region in the face of mutual accusations of bad faith. A shaky truce also seemed to be holding among Russia's fractious politicians as President Boris Yeltsin appeared to back General Anatoly Kulikov, the interior minister, who was subjected last week to a fierce assault by Mr. Aleksandr Lebed, nation security adviser."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Lebed's remarks brought to the surface a simmering feud in the Kremlin

Steve Liesman writes in a news analysis today: "A shaky ceasefire held over the weekend in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, but Russia's recent humiliation at the hands of rebel troops has precipitated a showdown in the Kremlin. The political future of. . . Lebed, along with his presidential intentions, looks to be on the line this week after he blasted. . . Kulikov. . . and called for his resignation. . . . Mr. Lebed's remarks have brought to the surface a simmering feud between different power centers within the Kremlin."

NEW YORK TIMES: Leaders of Russian forces in Chechnya are corrupt

Moscow Bureau Chief Michael Specter, in a comprehensive news analysis published yesterday, confronted many of the unanswered questions of the Chechen conflict. He wrote: "The defeat at first seems impossible to comprehend. . . . The Russians have at least 10 times the soldiers in Chechnya, and many times the wealth, of their opponents. But. . . the leaders of the Russian forces in Chechnya are corrupt, the soldiers are poorly trained, rarely paid and badly equipped, and consequently they have no will to win. The Chechens, on the other hand, are pursing a centuries-old vow to drive the occupiers from their land, one of the many republics that make up the Russian Federation. . . . The Russian troops have almost no water, little food and no avenue of escape."

Specter continued: "For a military that only a few years ago policed one of the modern world's most formidable empires, and remains the biggest in Europe, it is a humiliation that will be hard to live down. . . . Chechen and Western officials say the rebels have had financial help from rich supporters in Turkey, Jordan, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Russia itself. . . . Most of the backers in Russia are Chechen expatriates who have flourished by trading real estate and commodities and by running protection rackets in Russian cities. But most of the weapons have been captured from the Russian forces. . . . Most of the arms originated with units demobilized by the shrinking Soviet military, say Russian and Western analysts and the Chechen leaders themselves. The Chechens were aided in this effort by 'donations from our foreign friends,' said Akhmed Zakayev, one of the rebels' top commanders, and others."

The writer concluded: "Peace may be the only option left for Russia. . . . To take Grozny back would cost Russia many more men, and the prize would be a city so completely in ruins that it would take years and billions of dollars to put back together again."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Lebed is Yeltsin's biggest chance to end the war -- and his biggest threat

The paper says today in an editorial: "Lebed treats (the Chechen rebels) not as bandits but as political opponents who have to be taken seriously. This contrasts with the policy of his predecessors, who stumbled their way to the edge of the problematic situation. All official criticism used to concentrate on the separatists. The unity of Russia was a fig-leaf for Russia's worst excesses. But Lebed is turning the argumentation upside down. He speaks of the duty to be a constitutional state, of the shame exposing exhausted youths liable to military service as cannon-fodder. He looks for the culpables in Moscow. By doing this Lebed becomes Yeltsin's biggest chance to end this war. At the same time he is Yeltsin's biggest threat, as he unmasks the policy of violence, for which, in the final analysis, the president is responsible."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: We'll rest easier when Russia has a leader at center stage again

"Who's leading Russia?" the paper asks in an editorial today. The newspaper says: "For the first time since defiantly climbing atop that tank almost five years ago to the day, Boris Yeltsin is not occupying center stage in Russia. . . . When he will be up to exercising leadership, and for how long, are questions no one seems able to answer. . . . And as Mr. Lebed names his price for peace in Chechnya, the West will look on for signs of what role Russia's new security chief has in mind for the armed forces he will try to rebuild. The stakes five years ago seemed so much more dramatic when Boris Yeltsin faced down the forces of authoritarianism. The decrease of drama is a good sign that Russia's democracy is maturing. Still, we'll all rest easier when Russia has a leader at center stage again."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: Like Vietnam, the Chechen conflict cannot be settled militarily

Foreign Editor Michael Ehrenreich commented yesterday in the Danish newspaper: "Since the beginning of the war in 1994, Russia has brutally violated basic human rights in the breakaway republic. The Russian military have either ignored orders to implement a ceasefire, or have undermined the peace process, or have tried to do both at the same time while absurdly pretending to the media that the Chechen rebels are near collapse. . . . The recent Chechen offensive should have convinced everyone in Moscow that the conflict cannot be solved by military means. . . just as President Lyndon Johnson knew after the onslaught of the North Vietnamese in January 1968 that America could not win the Vietnam War."

LIBERATION: Is Lebed looking for a scapegoat on which to blame his failure as peacemaker?

In a commentary today in the French newspaper, Helene Despic-Popovic writes: "Some (in Moscow) think that in attacking the interior minister, (Lebed) hopes to place one of his own in the Interior Ministry, as he already did in the Defense Ministry, in order to increase his chances in a succession fight. There are also some, like the newspaper "Moskovski Komsomolets," who say that Lebed knew very well. . . that Yeltsin would not agree with his demand to oust Kulikov. . . , knew that he wouldn't manage to solve the war in Chechnya, and was looking for a scapegoat on which he could blame his failure."
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