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Western Press Review: Yeltsin Vetoes Religion Bill At His Own Political Risk

By Ron Synovitz, Aurora Gallego and Bob McMahon

Prague, 23 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Western newspapers today are analyzing the implications of President Boris Yeltsin's veto of a bill on the rights of religious groups within Russia. The bill would have restricted the activities of groups that had not been legally established in the Soviet Union 15 years ago. Newspapers also are commenting on the politics of European Union expansion.

LONDON INDEPENDENT: Yeltsin faces the prospect of a row with parliament

An analysis by Phil Reeves in today's edition says Yeltsin's veto will be warmly welcomed in the West. Reeves says the decision will be hailed "particularly in the United States, where Senators had voted to withhold about $200 million in aid to Russia if he signed it." Reeves writes: "The bill placed Mr Yeltsin in the politically painful position of having to weigh the considerable damage it would do to Russia abroad against huge domestic conservative pressures. Its overt intention was to stamp out the increasingly popular quasi-religious cults, like the Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo sect, masterminds of the nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995. But it also swept in the Roman Catholic Church -- which has long been at loggerheads with Russian Orthodoxy -- and other mainstream groups, such as the Baptists."

Reeves writes: "Mr. Yeltsin now faces the prospect of a row with parliament, which will accuse him of pandering to the West and especially the United States. The legislature, with whom he has long been sparring, can override his veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers -- a figure it currently appears capable of mustering. The issue must now wait until after parliament's summer recess, which ends in September."

Reeves concludes that the veto means Yeltsin's relationship with the Orthodox Church is now under pressure. He writes: "The Russian Orthodox Church clearly had other motives (besides slowing the growth of foreign cults). It has long complained about rivalry from outsiders, notably the Catholics, whom it accuses of proselytizing in Russia. So strained are relations that plans for the first ever meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch were recently cancelled."

NEW YORK TIMES: The administration identifies rights abuses but doesn't do enough to end them

An editorial today discusses a new U.S. State Department report on the persecution of Christian groups abroad. The study mentions China and Russia, along with Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia, as countries where religious persecution is occurring. But the paper accuses U.S. political leaders of giving insufficient attention to the issue.

The editorial says: "The Clinton administration and Congress have become quite skillful at identifying human rights abuses around the world while not doing enough to end them. The purpose of the (State Department study) has less to do with changing American policy toward repressive countries than scoring political points at home. Unfortunately, the whole exercise is diminished by the transparent politicking that surrounds it. Washington's human rights reports are themselves a form of pressure on abusive governments, but they cannot substitute for more direct action. Having gone to the trouble of assembling all this information, it would be nice if the administration unequivocally made human rights a centerpiece of American foreign policy."

WASHINGTON POST: Parliament might override Yeltsin's veto to show Russia can stand up to Washington

Daniel Williams analyzes the religion bill for today's edition. He says the Russian Orthodox Church "is not fully united on employing the state to hinder other faiths." But Williams concludes that the threat by the U.S Senate to cut $200 million in foreign aid could backfire in the long-run. He writes: "That threat poured nationalist oil on the religious fire, and even some opponents of the bill now fear parliament might override Yeltsin's veto just to show that Russia can stand up to Washington."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Republicans use the issue of persecuted Christians to criticize Clinton's policies

Steven Erlanger writes an analysis examining how the Russian bill would effect religious life in the country if the legislature does override Yeltsin's veto. Erlanger says: "Full rights would go to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Russian Orthodxy, which is the state religion, while Baptist groups that worked with a state-sponsored organization would be acceptable. But independent Baptist groups along with groups like the Mormons and Pentecostals would not be (acceptable). They would not be able to own property, publish literature or hold public worship."

Erlanger goes on to say that the U.S. Senate's pressure over the issue is the result of partisan politics in Washington. He writes: "Congressional Republicans have been using the issue of persecuted Christians as a way to criticize the Clinton administration's policies toward China and Russia."

Europe and the EU

FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU: The EU is not capable of integrating 11 new states simultaneously

A commentary by Knut Pries in today's edition notes that the Agenda 2000 plan from the European Commission is a proposal and not a final agreement. As such it will be the focus of heated debate until the next EU summit in Luxembourg in December.

Pries says: "The Scandinavians are showing their discontent over the apparently unfair handling of the Baltic (candidacies). Naturally the Lithuanians and Latvians are upset. But the disagreement is not as sharp as it was regarding NATO (expansion). This time the decision is more objective. It is something different if you offer the prize of EU agrarian policies or partnership guarantees of NATO to Romania. The latter is primarily a question of political will, the former more based on economic facts. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia are ready for admission. Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia need more help as market economies and in competitiveness; Slovakia as a democracy is 'momentarily insufficient.' Those are plausible proofs."

Pries continues by asking: "Can't a Regatta Start for membership negotiations be organized in which everyone may participate? This would be more ceremonial than substantial. A great but ultimately empty gesture would be a kind of dishonest diplomacy to help Western politicians gain approval in Eastern Europe."

"No," Pries complains. He says, "the 'Six-Pack option' marks the extent of current possibilities." The columnist concludes that the Brussels bureaucracy is not capable of integrating 11 new states simultaneously into an organization with hundreds of groundrules and thousands of laws compiled over four decades.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The new French deficit proposal violates tried-and-true principles

The paper today publishes an editorial criticizing a deficit reduction proposal by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin aiming to allow France to meet the strict criteria for European monetary union (EMU). The editorial points out that the tax rate on corporate capital gains will be more than doubled from 19 percent to 42 percent. "This," the editorial complains, "is on top of myriad other levies and regulatory costs of doing business in France."

The newspaper continues by saying: "Economists may disagree on how much the state can penalize businesses before the economy goes into a coma, but Mr Jospin's economic policy ideas violate so many time-tried principles that his circle of defenders is limited to such distinguished company as his Communist partners and die-hard socialists. We don't pretend to know the precise point at which companies respond negatively to disincentives such as this, but we feel pretty sure France passed that point long ago. French labor laws make firing workers costly and, wary of crippling strikes, companies are loath to seek concessions from labor unions. Companies will try to recover the increased tax costs as best they can, but the upshot of their efforts will be higher prices, less demand and a boon to foreign competitors. Many will be tempted to vote with their feet, moving production to Britain or other lower-cost centers."

The editorial concludes that Jospin's proposal may even fail to bring the French budget into line with Emu criteria. It calls the plan "another one-off measure (that) may again prove self-defeating, sending Mr Jospin back to his chemistry set in search of further creative solutions designed to skirt the real problem, a bloated public sector created by his Socialist forerunners."

LE FIGARO: France's Socialists prefer taxation to economic actions

A commentary by Michel Schifres in yesterday's edition of France's conservative paper also is critical of Jospin's deficit reduction plan. Schifres writes: "The total change of the Socialists' attitude is just amazing. Only a few months ago they were expressing concern about the Euro and its consequences, seeking other solutions. Now they appear as enthusiastic defenders of it! This attitude is not led by a desire to manage the state better, but rather, the sole drive is to respect European (monetary) deadlines. Sticking to the tradition, the Socialists prefer taxation to economic actions. Additional taxes exceed significantly the restrictions of the budget."