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Western Press Review: Russia And Yeltsin -- 'Condition Guarded'

  • Don Hill

Moscow, 3 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentators are finding a metaphor for the entire Russian state in the physical condition of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Commentary looks at repeated postponement of a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit, at the visit to Moscow of French President Jacques Chirac, and at NATO-Russia relations.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The CIS serves as a scarecrow against NATO expansion

Carol J. Williams wrote yesterday in a news analysis: "Last week's (scheduled) gathering in Moscow to celebrate five years together as the Commonwealth of Independent States had to be called off for the fourth time because of the illness of the summit's host, Russian President and Commonwealth Chairman Boris N. Yeltsin. The alliance originally proclaimed to supplant the dying Soviet Union may be in the same condition as its chairman. Half a decade after its creation, the Commonwealth remains more an idea than a confederation, bereft of power and unable to function. Indeed, the primary value Russians attach to strengthening ties with former Soviet neighbors is the collective clout it gives them, serving as a scarecrow against expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and providing Russia a plausible pretext for continued involvement in what are now foreign countries' domestic affairs."

ATLANTA CONSTITUTION: Yeltsin is a caricature of the Soviet past

In an analysis Friday, Marcia Kunstell and Joseph Albright wrote: "The leader whose dynamic drive for reform forged a new Russia six years ago has become a caricature of the Soviet past: a frail president whose entourage props him into the seat of power, even though he can barely negotiate the reins." They said: "In the meantime, some politicians already are actively campaigning to replace him, while others are trying to shift to the legislative branch a share of the huge powers held by the president under the Russian constitution Yeltsin midwifed into existence in 1993."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Russia remains opposed to enlargement

Chirac's visit to Russia and a continuing controversy over NATO expansion plans excite a flurry of comment today. Frederick Bonnart comments: "NATO's plans for the eastward spread of stability are under pressure. The enlargement process is moving forward inexorably, but Russia remains as inexorably opposed to it."

Bonnart writes: "The timetable for enlargement is fixed and the process has reached the stage of no return. Repeated encouragement from top allied leaders has all but assured at least three candidate countries -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland -- that they will be invited to join." He says that a reversal now "would cause a powerful reaction within them that could impede their progress to democracy and European integration. It could also seriously unbalance the present security situation. Of this, the Russian political establishment is well aware."

The commentary says: "NATO's offer in December 1994 of an enhanced consultation mechanism was never taken up by Russia, and subsequent attempts to persuade Russia to define its requirements have been unsuccessful. The enlargement timetable now presents Russia with a window of opportunity for establishing its post-Cold War world position that it should use before it closes."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Yeltsin sought to woo France to the Kremlin's side

Carol Williams writes today in an analysis: "Employing the time-tested rule of divide and conquer, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin (sought yesterday) to woo France to the Kremlin's side in a dispute over NATO expansion by praising French President Jacques Chirac's discordant positions within the Western alliance." She adds: "Accounts of the meeting provided by Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, suggested that the ailing president held up his end in what has become a full-scale Kremlin offensive to dissuade NATO from expanding into Eastern Europe without heeding Russia's concerns." She writes: "The mini-summit followed harsh warnings about NATO expansion from Kremlin officials taking part in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, over the weekend."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Russia hopes to exploit tensions within the alliance

Chrystia Freeland writes today in a news analysis: "Mr. Boris Yeltsin yesterday sought to reassert himself as Russian president by holding a three-hour summit meeting with Mr. Jacques Chirac, his French counterpart." Freeland says: "The summit was also Moscow's latest move to soften the blow of NATO expansion. Having seemingly accepted its inevitability, Russia now is pressing the alliance to sign a formal charter in which current NATO members would pledge not to deploy nuclear missiles to heavy conventional weapons on the territory of NATO's new Eastern European initiate. The United States and most NATO partners oppose a legally binding agreement, which would require parliamentary ratification, but Russia is hoping to exploit tensions within the alliance, especially between Paris and Washington, to get its way."

The "Chicago Tribune" and "Washington Post" recently have examined two related issues, those of Chechnya and of Kremlin succession.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Chechens prefer diplomacy to bullets in achieving independence

The paper editorialized at the end of last week: "Two clear messages emerged from the ashes of Russia's recent 21-month war in Chechnya: Unyielding rebel Chechens would fight to the death to escape Russian domination, and Russia no longer had the will or the army to win the vicious mountain conflict. But in Aslan Maskhadov's victory in (last week's) apparently free and open presidential election, two more powerful messages were delivered by ordinary Chechens: They would prefer diplomacy to bullets in achieving their goal of independence from Moscow, and while they may want to rule themselves, they don't necessarily want to sever all ties with Russia."

The editorial said: "When he was confident he had won the election, Maskhadov declared he would reopen talks with Russia on the sovereignty issue and put on the table demands for reparations for the savage war that cost the lives of thousands of Chechen and Russian troops."

WASHINGTON POST: Yeltsin critics and allies suggest amending the constitution

In a news analysis Saturday, David Hoffman wrote: "President Boris Yeltsin poured cold water today on the idea of amending Russia's constitution after his prolonged health problems spurred several weeks of speculation about possible changes in the document." Hoffman wrote: "Although the chances of amending the constitution seem remote, the discussion about it is a sign of the continuing worry in political circles here about Yeltsin's lengthy absence."

He said: "Yeltsin's critics, as well as some of his allies, have suggested amending the constitution to better define the process of presidential succession, such as creating (an) office of vice president. The document leaves open the question of how to remove a president if he becomes incapacitated. Nor is there a second-in-command. Instead, the constitution simply calls for the prime minister to become president for three months and new elections to be held."