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Western Press Review: Political Enigma In Mother Russia

  • Don Hill

Prague, 31 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- As a government crisis in Serbia settles in for what appears to be a long standoff, Western commentary renews its concern with other long-lived issues. A major one is the position of Russia in relation to Western institutions, particularly expansion-minded NATO.

DIE WELT: Moscow may forge stronger ties with the East

In the German newspaper, Jens Hartmann commented yesterday from Moscow: "After months of maneuvering, it appears that Russia has finally come up with a response to NATO's decision to expand eastwards. If the North Atlantic Treaty Organization extends its sphere of influence up to the Russian border, Moscow will forge stronger ties to the East. That was the clear implication of Chinese Premier Li Peng's just-concluded visit here. The marriage of the Eurasian giants would, both partners hope, give NATO and the United States a nasty fright."

Hartmann concludes: "Weighing against the prospects of success are underlying difficulties, including vastly different strategic interests and the fact that Russia is traditionally oriented toward the West -- not the East. Even in Moscow, there is skepticism that the lowest common denominator between China and Russia -- the satisfaction of standing up to Washington -- will prove to be foundation enough for a true strategic partnership."

SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: A tight political alliance with Russia may not be in China's interest

Miriam Neubert writing from Moscow yesterday reported detecting the same signal, and she said: "Russia sees China as an important partner in the future balance of power and wants to impose an obligation on the Chinese ahead of President Jiang Zemin's visit here next April. After a short-lived flirtation with the West, Moscow has been searching over the last few years for ways to limit the supremacy of the United States, the sole remaining superpower."

She concluded: "The political impetus for both countries to forge a stronger bilateral relationship comes from the United States; the Russians oppose its bid to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Eastward, while the Chinese are mainly concerned with (U.S.) policies towards Taiwan. The fact remains, however, that a tight political alliance with Russia may not be in China's interest, whose priority remains trade with the United States, along with American investment. At the same time, its booming economy and vast population already put China on the threshold of world power status without the need to close ranks with Russia, which still needs to find its feet -- and not only economically."

WASHINGTON POST: Some in Russia would like to see Russia itself join NATO

A commentary today by Ira Straus, U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, urges NATO and the West to pre-empt Russia as an ally. Straus writes: "While Russia and the West quarrel noisily over NATO expansion, pro-Westerners inside Russia have been plugging for a way out where both sides win -- by having Russia itself join NATO. In the past month, the leaders of both the Russian Security and Defense Councils have stuck out their necks on behalf of this proposal. Now they need the West to show that it is genuinely interested in having Russia as an ally."

Straus continues: "Ever since 1991, the top Russian leadership has included people who are called Atlanticists, meaning that they recognize the Atlantic grouping as the core of the international system and want Russia to join it. They have come to advocate political membership for Russia in NATO, (that is) joining the North Atlantic Council, as the step that makes the most sense at this time. This would not yet mean membership in the integrated command of NATO, since many military people on both sides are still afraid of that. But it would provide Russia with the basic status of an ally, one that is seriously consulted and not marginalized. Once that was done, Russia would no longer have any objection to other countries joining NATO."

He writes: "If the West responds favorably to the Russian feelers on joining NATO, the anti-Westerners will be discredited, and many neutralists will come over to the Western side. Rejecting these feelers risks just the opposite -- vindicating the anti-Western forces, discrediting the pro-Western ones."

Straus' commentary concludes: "To wake itself up, the West needs to discuss the issue on a public level, outside of the channels that would reduce everything to a sterile exchange of notes. This is a matter of high drama, not bureaucratic maneuver. We in the West will be able to make good on our option of having Russia as an ally only if our leaders and our people become fully aware that we have the option."

But an inalienable part of Russia's external strategies is her internal politics. Several commentators discuss shifting alliances and new challenges within the Russian leadership. Writers for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times analyzed recently an announcement by former General Alexander Lebed that he is organizing a new political party.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Lebed intends to challenge Yeltsin

In the Los Angeles newspaper, Carol J. Williams wrote: "Alexander I. Lebed, the darling of the disaffected and political nemesis of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, resurfaced Friday after a mysterious two-month absence to stake a claim on the role of this nation's leader-in-waiting. (The) list of Yeltsin detractors grows ever longer as a budget crisis has forced the government to delay payment of wages and pensions to millions of Russians whose livelihoods depend on the state." She added: "By forming a new political movement and lashing out at Yeltsin anew, Lebed has signaled his intention to challenge the sitting president, whose job he has openly and impatiently coveted."

NEW YORK TIMES: Yeltsin intends to serve out his four-year term

Michael R. Gordon wrote: "Lebed's decision to establish a new party, dubbed the Russian Popular Republican Party, is the latest sign that he is doggedly pursuing his presidential ambitions and is beginning the long process of building a political organization." Gordon continued: "But Yeltsin has also signaled that he still has a lot of fight left in him and intends to serve out his four-year term ending in 2000. And it remains to be seen whether the powerful banks, companies and media organizations that now support Yeltsin and his top aides will risk the Kremlin's wrath by backing Lebed. Among Russia's most popular politicians, Lebed is seen by many voters as a strong man who can bring order to Russia without returning it to the stagnant days of Communist rule."

Gordon wrote: "But critics say (Lebed's) career has been marked also by policy gyrations, strange political alliances and a haunting vagueness about some of the nation's most pressing economic issues."