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Western Press Review: Scrutinizing Fickle Russia

  • Don Hill

Prague, 23 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's sometimes amicable, frequently prickly and usually puzzling relations with other nations, and its behavior within its own borders, invoke Western press commentators' attention this week.

WASHINGTON POST: China and Russia seek closer ties

At the top of the news is a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Moscow as part of a bilateral drive for a new China-Russia entente. In an analysis Moscow correspondent David Hoffman writes today that, despite ancient suspicions, the two nations seek closer military and political ties. He writes: "Zemin opened a five-day visit to Russia intended to cement further military and political ties between the two huge countries at a time when Russia is warily eyeing the expansion of NATO."

Hoffman reports that the agenda includes reducing border troop concentrations and Russian arms sales to China, and adds: "Deep suspicions still remain between the two Asian behemoths, a legacy of more than two decades of mutual hostility that began to ease in 1989."

DIE WELT: China and Russia face economic and political gaps

In the German newspaper today, Herbert Kremp comments on the contrasts Zemin will observe between China's boom economy and political strength and Russia's economic, political and social crises. Kremp writes: "When Chinese President Jiang Zemin enters the splendor of the Kremlin, the contradiction between appearance and the reality of Russia's plight will strike him as having deepened since his first visit, in 1994. He will find a country facing crisis in its new political system, an economy that has shrunk by half since Soviet days and an army that has deteriorated to the point where control over nuclear stockpiles has grown unsure. In complete contrast, there is China, with a booming if volatile economy, continually growing trade and an irresistible allure to many foreign businesses."

Kremp says, "For Beijing, a strategic partnership means an attempt to have a certain influence on the giant bankrupt to the north," and he adds, "But above all, the Chinese want to keep the north quiet." He comments that the Russians, "since the time of the czars, have felt an almost primeval fear of encroachment by the Chinese masses. In this respect, Siberia was the fortress, the buffer zone against Chinese aggression."

The commentator concludes: "Yeltsin dreams of an Asian counterweight to the Americans, moving closer to Russia in Europe through NATO's eastward enlargement, and Jiang Zemin will tell him only agreeable things. But what the Sino-Russian partnership can at most mean is a system of mutual insurance and protection."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: U.S. investors are leeary of Russia

A Washington Post editorial, recounts the strange case of an exhibit of Russian state treasures scheduled for a U.S. road tour after a 10-week showing at Washington's Corcoran Gallery. Russian Embassy officials and drivers have been blockading the exhibit to prevent its moving to Houston after a Rusian change of mind about the road show. The editorial says: "U.S. investors are leery of Russia in part because that country's proto-capitalists have developed a reputation for reneging on agreements in midstream and settling disputes without overmuch regard for the niceties of law or negotiation."

The editorial concludes: "Whatever the merit or lack of merit of Russia's grievances here, you would think it would see an advantgage in settling them in a less confrontational way."

ATLANTA JOURNAL AND CONSTITUTION: Russia refuses to launch satellite

Another apparent Russian "midstream reneging" was reported from Moscow over the weekend by Marcia Kunstel and Joseph Albright. They told of a U.S. aerospace engineer who "was still puzzling this weekend over why Russia suddenly refused to launch his experimental satellite."

In a news analysis, the reporters wrote: "Whatever its explanation, Russia's 11th-hour refusal to launch (the U.S. entrepreneur's) FAISAT-2v satellite was a jolting alert to Western investors, who already tread shaky ground in their efforts to do business here." They added: "In a season of soured U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations, accompanied by growing Russian nationalism, an interagency squabble might be the least troubling of potential reasons for such a strange move against a small American company."

Kunstel and Albright said: "The notion that Russian space bureaucrats suddenly discovered that they needed a new permission form for a complex, long-planned international satellite launch carried a hollow ring." They wrote: "The problem could be as simple as Russian interagency dispute. The civilian Russian Space Agency just was put in charge of overall space programs, and the issue of launch permission could well be a skirmish in a bureaucratic turf war with the Military Space Forces."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Government�s initiatives humor Russians

Within Russia's borders, the government's seemingly whimsical initiatives can be more a source of humor than inspiration to the Russians themselves, Richard Paddock wrote recently. In a news analysis, Paddock said: "President Boris N. Yeltsin has a dream -- one day, stores here will be filled with Russian goods, and Russians will want to buy them." Paddock wrote: "In a recent national radio address, Yeltsin appealed to the patriotism of Russian shoppers, urging them to boost domestic industry and buy Russian. 'Is Russian chocolate worse than imported chocolate?' Yeltsin asked. 'No, it's better. And what about bread, sausages, dairy products, beer, not to speak of vodka?' "

Paddock continued: "(Yeltsin's) appeal, however, was about as well-received as the Rubin television -- the Soviet brand infamous for exploding when turned on." Paddock said: "Even the President's family members were slow to get behind the buy Russian slogan. Hours after Yeltsin's address, presidential son-in-law Valery Okulov, the acting chief of Aeroflot airlines, announced the company will buy 10 Boeing 737-400 jets for 400 million dollars to replace some of its aging Russian-made planes."

Paddock reported: "The buy Russian campaign was greeted by humor on many fronts, including in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which published a front-page cartoon highlighting Yeltsin's appeal to Russians to buy domestic vodka. In the cartoon, two drunk Russians are holding up a third, who has passed out. A police officer has stopped them, and one of the drunks is explaining: 'We are trying to support not only a Russian producer, but a Russian consumer too.' "

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Russia shifts maneuvers over NATO

Michael Frank commented yesterday on the Yeltsin administration's shifting maneuvers over proposed NATO eastward expansion. Frank's occasion was Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's visit to the Czech Republic. Frank wrote: "In the Czech capital, (Chernomyrdin) repeated the old saw that it was for the Czechs themselves to decide where they stood on NATO. Russia was not threatening them, but Moscow might well realign its interests if Prague were to join."

The German commentator said: "So the heirs of the Soviet Union, the former hegemonial power, uttered threats after all, and Russia is credited with a renewed desire to regain its empire of old. Chernomyrdin's comment that Russia failed to understand the Central Europeans' fixation with NATO, given that they faced no threat from the East, was seen as sheer cynicism."