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Western Press Review: Russia Today - Progressive And Reactionary

  • Don Hill



Prague, 25 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Daniel Williams adopts a playwright's idiom today to describe an internationally-noted speech that Russian President Boris Yeltsin made yesterday to the Federation Council, upper house of parliament.

WASHINGTON POST: Revolutionaries have a hard time governing effectively

In a news analysis from Moscow, Williams writes: "It is an axiom of history that revolutionaries have a hard time governing effectively. A brash style that sweeps away an old, discredited system is frequently inappropriate to establishing a new one. Enter Boris Yeltsin, arguably one of the late 20th-century's major rebels, who outlined his latest plan to wrench the virtually anarchic Russian state he helped create five years ago into a prosperous, well-regulated, modern democracy."

Williams and other commentators in the Western press devote substantial attention today to the Yeltsin speech. Western commentary also examines new legislation in Russia that appears to threaten freedom of action of some religious groups.

THE WASHINGTON POST: Yeltsin is set on imposing order on the forces he unleashed

The analysis continues: "Verbally, at least, this is a new Yeltsin. In his first months and years in office, he established an electoral democracy, freed up prices, sold off state enterprises, left businesses to sink or swim on their own, invited regional leaders to grab as much sovereignty as they wanted and permitted Russia's vast military-industrial complex to wither. At the same time, his government lost control of tax collection, was unable to pay wages on time, allowed corruption to flourish and largely turned his back on social welfare. All this took place in the name of atomizing the Soviet Communist system.

"Now, it appears that Yeltsin is set on imposing order on the forces he unleashed. It will not be easy. Big business and banks resist paying taxes or fair market prices for remaining government-owned resources; corruption appears to be entrenched at all levels of officialdom; regional governments ignore orders from Moscow; the army is in tatters."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Yeltsin opened a new era in post-communist Russia

Chrystia Freeland agrees that the speech may presage a new stage for Russia. She writes: "A robust President Boris Yeltsin yesterday opened a new era in post-communist Russia by declaring that the state would enforce the rules of an open and fair market economy and cut off financial barons' privileges."

NEW YORK TIMES: The address marked a fundamental shift in the government's thinking

The time was ripe for Yeltsin to make such a stand, Michael R. Gordon says: "Yeltsin's speech came at a critical time in Russia's political and economic development. Communism is dead in Russia, but the free-wheeling capitalism that followed has given a small group of bankers and business people control over much of the economy, producing a yawning gap between rich and poor and spawning a corrosive popular cynicism.

"The address marked a fundamental shift in the government's thinking about how to foster capitalism, moving away from a system of favoritism and back-room deals toward a clearer separation between government and business. Carrying out the new policy will require fair auctions of state property to the highest bidder. It will require developing an effective federal treasury and transferring government budget funds from accounts in favored banks. And it will require making good on Yeltsin's many promises to root out corruption in his government's ranks. These are all steps Yeltsin defended."

BOSTON GLOBE: Yeltsin's remarks were aimed at the financial barons

David Filipov says in a news analysis that Yeltsin was taking aim directly at a group of powerful business figures who had comprised part of his political base. Filipov writes: "Yeltsin made it clear that these remarks were aimed at the small circle of financial barons who have supported him politically while profiting from their close ties to the Kremlin to amass sweeping economic power. Yeltsin did not mention anyone by name, but the clear targets were Vladimir Gusinsky of the Media Most empire; Boris Berezovsky, a deputy head of the Russian Security Council who founded the Logovaz conglomerate; Vladimir Vinogradov of Inkombank; Mikhail Khodorkovsky of the Menatep group, Mikhail Smolensky of SBS-Agro Bank; and Vladimir Potanin of Oneximbank."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: A new tack for a president who has more often played the czar than the politician

Matthew Brzezinski suggests that the speech was significant less for its assertions than for its display of political finesse. Brzezinski says in a news analysis: "Heavy in pronouncements, Mr. Yeltsin's address also contained more subtle offers of compromises needed to gain passage of several urgent reform bills including land and tax reform an an austere 1998 budget. It appeared to be a new tack for a president who has more often played the czar than the politician."

BALTIMORE SUN: The more things change, the more the church stays the same

Turning from the financial to the sublime the editorial yesterday thundered against pending legislation in Russia that -- at least nominally -- would restrict freedom of religion. The Sun said: "Throughout much of its turbulent history, the Russian Orthodox Church has been part of the state machinery. It is now on the verge of solidifying its privileged status in non-communist Russia. Under a measure that has President Boris N. Yeltsin's blessing, it and Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist denominations recognized by the Soviet Union in 1982 would be regarded as the only genuine Russian religions."

The editorial continued: "This odious piece of legislation has been welcomed by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, which views it as 'effective protection of both the individual and society against the arbitrary actions of destructive pseudo-religious cults and foreign false-missionaries.' " The editorial concluded: "In the see-saw movement of history, the Russian Orthodox Church often has represented reactionary elements. Its strong lobbying for this legislation and its unholy alliance with the parliament's communist power bloc show that the more things change, the more the church stays the same."

WASHINGTON POST: The bill creates separate and unequal categories of religion

David Hoffman notes, one, that Yeltsin administration officials now are hinting they won't rigorously enforce the law and, two, it is likely to face a constitutional court challenge. Hoffman writes: "In recent days, Kremlin officials, bracing for protest from abroad, have been suggesting the law might not be rigidly implemented." He adds: "The 1993 Constitution guarantees religions 'shall be equal before the law.' But critics say the bill creates separate and unequal categories of religion, and a court challenge is likely."

Hoffman says the bill protects what it calls "traditional faiths" and restricts others. He writes: "Under the preamble to the bill, the traditional faiths are Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, which were in the original version, and 'Christianity,' which was added to the final version." He writes: "Among denominations that might be restricted by the new law are the Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many smaller sects and cults."
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