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Transition Nations Press Review: The Politics Of Transition Societies

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 19 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The politics of transforming society remained a favorite subject for newspaper editorials across the region over the past week. Russia continued to debate political extremism. Armenia faced a populist wave of protest over increased telephone charges. Estonian parties tried to attract votes by bringing personalities into politics. Latvia toyed with pork quotas. Slovakia struggled with the mystery of who was behind its first political murder. Poland demanded fair and equal treatment in reimbursement for those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. And Bulgaria experienced a growing alienation between society and politicians.

IZVESTIA: Sweeping changes necessary to prevent anti-Semitism in Duma

In Russia, Izvestia (on Jan. 15) ran an editorial entitled "Extremism Will Not Win," saying: "Political extremism remains one of the hottest topics in the country and the authorities should deal with it, at least formally....The General Prosecutor's Office is ready to carry out unceasing linguistic analysis of the obviously anti-Semitic announcements ...of [Albert] Makashov, [Viktor] Ilyukhin, and [Nikolai] Kondratenko. The Duma is pondering the parliamentary immunity of the above-mentioned personages, and the government has at long last considered a draft bill 'On Counter-Actions to Political Extremism' prepared by the Justice Ministry."

Izvestia continues: "Expressions of political extremism have always come as discoveries for those in authority. It is enough to recall the astonishment of a high-ranking official on hearing that his subordinates had openly bought an anti-Semitic brochure in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow." The paper notes that "extremist appeals also sound clearly in the media."

The paper notes that the draft bill on extremism has received the approval of the Government, but that it has "been sent back for further elaboration in order to coordinate it with the General Prosecutor's Office and the Supreme Court. Thus, extremists can sleep soundly for the moment. Even if an amended draft bill is considered again by the Government and submitted to the legislators this year, it will not be approved by the Duma. In order for this to happen, sweeping changes among Duma deputies --who today consist mainly of potential 'targets' of the new law-- must take place."

VECHERNAYA KAZAN: State council may boycott paying taxes to Moscow

In Tatarstan, Vechernyaya Kazan commented (on Jan. 15) that deputies of Tatarstan's State Council are threatening a repetition of Kalmykia's boycott on paying taxes to Moscow. Such passions were inspired by the report of Minister of Finance Robert Musin, which said that prolongation of the inter-governmental treaty on budget relations between Russia and Tatarstan was in serious doubt. Russia wants to take 75 percent (instead of the usual 50 percent) of the most collectable tax --VAT [Value-Added Tax]-- from Tatarstan. The paper warns that if Moscow succeeds in taking 75 percent of VAT from the Tatarstan Republic, the recently adopted law on Tatarstan's budget will no longer have any sense, since the republic's income will decrease by 30 percent.

ORAGIR: Press will play important role in May elections

In Armenia, the daily Oragir commented (on Jan. 15) that the campaign for the May parliamentary elections, which it calls "the most important event of 1999...has already begun." The role of the press will grow dramatically, the paper says. Some leading parties plan to open their own newspapers or even TV stations depending on how much money they have.

ARAVOT: Political parties hypocritical about telephone fees

The Yerevan daily Aravot said it is stunned by what it called the "populism" of Armenia's political parties over ArmenTel's raising of telephone fees. What is particularly interesting, it says, is the fact that such otherwise mutually hostile political parties as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD) and Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) are now actively campaigning against the move. The paper finds an element of hypocrisy in the stance of both parties. It recalls that the former ruling HHSh had voted in parliament for the privatization of Armenia's telecommunications network. The deal with Greece's OTE [telephone consortium] was sealed by the government of Robert Kocharian, so ardently supported by the HHD.

HAYK: Party intervention in telecom deal "very interesting"

The weekly Hayk also finds it "very interesting" that parties are so actively intervening in a supposedly economic matter. It says ArmenTel's decision "gave the parties and government an excellent opportunity to show that they do care about the people." Yet the result may be rather sad, the paper notes. It says that with all major privatization deals in Armenia embroiled in controversy, foreign investors will now think twice before investing in the Armenian economy.

AZADLIQ: Questions remain about shooting of prisoners at Gobustan jail, Elchibey arrest a mistake

Azerbaijan's leading opposition daily, Azadliq, comments (on Jan. 12) that it remains unknown who ordered the shooting of prisoners at the Gobustan jail. The paper says the authorities' use of terms such as "criminal, mutiny and terrorist" before any court had a chance to rule means that the authorities are attempting to put this event behind them.

A commentary in Azadliq by Fazil Gazanfaroglu says the arrest of former president Abulfaz Elchibey may prove to be the authorities' biggest mistake. The paper says some members of the opposition are interested in Elchibey's arrest, as are Russia and Iran.

POSTIMEES: Non-politicians running for office, Savisaar/Rutel agreement more natural than previous coalitions

In Estonia, Postimees (on Jan. 11) wrote about the presence of prominent people on party lists for the upcoming national elections. It commented: "Somewhat strange is the fact that there are a considerable number of artists, scientists and sportsmen on the lists, although their connections with politics are quite tenuous." Postimees considers this to be a populist step which has nothing to do with party platforms.

A few days later (Jan. 14) Postimees wrote about the announcement by Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar and Country People's Alliance leader Arnold Ruutel to cooperate after the general elections. It said: "The deal with Ruutel is like a lottery prize for Savisaar, whose campaign this time is based on peoples' nostalgia and yearning for the past. Who else could possibly fit better into this pattern than Ruutel, Estonia's leader during the struggle for independence?" The paper concludes that: "The new alliance is perhaps more natural than the previous coalition between the Coalition Party and the Country People's Alliance, as both Savisaar and Ruutel support an economic model in which the state would play a bigger role than at present."

DIENA: Latvian government's pork import solution creates many other problems

In a commentary in Latvia's Diena (on Jan. 11) on a dispute over Latvian plans to introduce quotas for Estonian pork imports, Aivars Ozolins wrote that the Latvian government, in its wish to solve one problem of an abundance of pork in the Latvian market, created many other problems. He argued that "as long ago as the beginning of the 1990s, [Estonia] lifted all import tariffs and, therefore, their pork breeders are able to compete with the Latvian producers...."

Diena comments that Latvia's prime minister [Vilis Kristopans] appears extremely ridiculous, fighting these "pork battles." At home in Latvia, Diena said, he advocates quotas, but during his visit to Tallinn he said he hoped the Latvian Parliament will not accept the introduction of the very same quotas. The paper concludes: "If the stubborn flip-flopping of the Prime Minister is based on his incompetence, then the populist, united front-line of Latvia�s political parties is simply miserable conformism".

KAUNO DIENA: Recent Duma attacks an excuse for the events of Jan. 13, 1991

The Lithuanian daily Kauno Diena (on Jan. 15) denounced as provocative a recent declaration by the Russian State Duma that accused Lithuania of political trials and growing numbers of political prisoners. According to the daily, the Duma's action only confirms the old rule that the best defense is to attack, pointing to the fact that the declaration was passed on the anniversary of the tragic January 13 [1991] events [in Vilnius]. The paper said that this was a way for Duma to find an excuse for the events of eight years ago, when the Soviet military used violence against peaceful protesters.

Diena also said that the Duma's declaration was intended as a means to stop Lithuania's integration into NATO and the European Union (EU).

LIETUVOS RYTAS: Defense the only sector of Lithuanian life linked to GDP

Lietuvos Rytas comments that, with parliament having passed a law on defense-funding strategy, defense is now the only sector of Lithuanian life in which funding will be directly connected to the country's Gross Domestic Product. (GDP) The paper wrote that, although there is a connection between the size of the defense budget and Lithuania's chances for entering NATO, even Parliament Speaker Vytautas Landsbergis, who most ardently campaigned for the bill, understands that Lithuania's membership in NATO will depend on political decisions, rather than the share of GDP earmarked for defense spending.

RZECZPPOSPOLITA: Germany should not discriminate against WWII victims on the basis of citizenship

In Poland, the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita commented (on Jan. 13) on the issue of reimbursing Polish victims of Nazi Germany: "Above all the [German] government in Bonn cannot discriminate against the victims of World War Two on the basis of their citizenship, according to which victims from Western countries have been paid out incomparably higher sums [than those in the East]. There are numerous misunderstandings and confusion between Poland and Germany concerning damages and claims. Justifiably. It is time to resolve these questions so that they will not hamper relations between Warsaw and Berlin in the new millennium."

LEFT PRAVDA: Ducky murder a terrible precedent

In Slovakia the murder of Jan Ducky (eds: Doot-ski), an associate of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and once economy and industry minister as well as chief of the Slovak Gas Authority (SPP), was fodder for all the country's dailies. The post-communist Left Pravda carried a commentary under the headline: "A Horrible Precedent," stating that for the first time in Slovakia�s history since November 1989 the victim of a capital crime was a top political figure. Juraj Handzo writes: "That's why it cannot be considered a common crime of murder, but rather as a case with a political background. It is also notable for the first reactions of top politicians, especially from HZDS, who blamed the present ruling coalition for what happened and called the case 'a political murder.' It needs to be said that this kind of evaluation is devoid of any logic."

Pravda says a more logical explanation is that behind the murder was somebody who needed to prevent Ducky from talking at any price. The commentary concludes: "If the case is not clearly solved and the guilty put on trial, then inevitably further crimes of this kind will follow. But in that case it will not be possible to call Slovakia a democratic, civilized nation with the rule of law. It will become just another 'Mafia enclave' where 'the law of the jungle' rules."

PRACA: Ducky murder, organized crime are Meciar's legacy

The Slovak trade-union daily Praca said (on Jan. 16) that Ducky's murder is the legacy of the third government of Vladimir Meciar. Out of 128 murders committed in Slovakia last year, 94 cases were cleared up, but those with a clear connection with organized crime have largely remained unresolved. The paper wrote: "When Gustav Krajci was interior minister, there were a number of brutal murders with underworld bosses as victims....Now the same Krajci, as a member of parliament, is criticizing Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner for being unable to cope with organized crime, which flourished under Meciar's governments for at least four years."

SME: Ducky case complicated due to links with Russia

Slovakia's independent Sme wrote (on Jan. 16): "Ducky's case is very complicated because he traded with Russia and other post-Soviet countries beyond the framework of normal relations." Russia's Gazprom is likely to have wanted to penetrate further to the West, at least to the Czech Republic, through the SPP gas giant, formerly headed by Ducky. Sme wrote that it is common knowledge that the Russian economy is mostly dominated by the Russian Mafia which employs a number of former senior KGB agents. Ducky was in a difficult position with his Russian partners since in these matters there are no rules of the game and power is almost unchecked. "It is unlikely that the idea of getting rid of Ducky was conceived in Slovakia," Sme concludes. "But if so, the state of affairs is much worse here than we believe".

KONTINENT: People expressing disappointment with politicians by showing less interest in politics

In Bulgaria, the daily Kontinent (on Jan. 13) ran a commentary entitled "Bulgarian Society is Distancing Itself from Politicians" that discussed the reasons why the so-called "political class" has alienated society at large. Konstantin Sabchev commented that 1999, the second year of big political changes in Bulgaria, has started off with price increases, unrealized hopes for capital inflow through privatization, corruption scandals and "new Schengen walls." He wrote that people are now expressing their disappointment with the politicians by showing less interest in politics. The next step will be to look for an alternative which, given the deficit of [qualified] politicians in Bulgaria, may prove to be a difficult endeavor. In its search for an alternative, Sabchev concludes, Bulgarian society may come up with far less favorable decisions than say, bringing back the monarchy, [alternatives such as] strong-arm politics.