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Western Press Review: Russia's Political Crisis

  • Joel Blocker
  • Anthony Georgieff

Prague, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators have turned much of their attention to Russia's newest political crisis, triggered yesterday by President Boris Yeltsin's firing of prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. Analysts assess the chances of Yeltsin being impeached by parliament, a process that begins today in the lower house, and also take a look at Yeltsin's choice for a new prime minister, Sergei Stepashin.

WASHINGTON POST: Russia slides further downhill

"Dangerous Russia" is the title of the Washington Post's editorial today. The paper says: "Russia has survived so much upheaval during the past decade that another dose of political turbulence might seem inconsequential." But the paper warns: "It would be a mistake ... to draw too much comfort from the resilience of the Russian people and the catastrophes avoided thus far. The fact that oft-predicted calamities such as national disintegration or social upheaval have yet to come true does not mean they never will."

The editorial continues: "Russia is in a state of gradual collapse. People are dying younger and younger ... The government is less and less able to perform the minimal functions of a state: providing security, collecting taxes, caring for the most vulnerable. The possibility of an inadvertent missile launch or an illicit warhead sale also has lost its ability to frighten or motivate us after years of repeated warnings. But such horrors grow more likely as Russia weakens, not less." It concludes: "Stepashin is known chiefly for the unquestioning loyalty he has shown Mr. Yeltsin over the years and for his major role in pushing Russia into its disastrous war in Chechnya in 1994 ... No matter, perhaps; the parliament is unlikely to confirm his nomination. More likely is a new period of political combat and instability, including possibly the impeachment of Mr. Yeltsin, as Russia slides further downhill."

WASHINGTON POST: The real problem was power

Opposite its editorial, the Washington Post also runs a commentary by analyst Thomas Graham. He writes: "As usual in Kremlin politics, the real problem was power, not policy. Yeltsin is extremely jealous of his prerogatives, and he is at his best when struggling for power and political survival. And Primakov was a threat ... the most popular politician in Russia today, [who did] what no other prime minister had under Yeltsin, and that is to establish himself as an independent source of political power and authority. Yeltsin simply could not tolerate this situation of dual power."

Graham goes on: "The governmental crisis will not be quickly resolved, and it could deepen. Yeltsin's actions increase the chances that the Duma, or lower house of parliament, will impeach him later this week ... inherent contradictions and omissions in the [Russian] constitution increase the risk that this conflict will move along extra-constitutional paths, with all the negative ramifications that will have for building democracy in Russia."

NEW YORK TIMES: The actual reason is doubtlessly more Byzantine

For the New York Times, "Boris Yeltsin has given new meaning to an old Kremlin post, the disposable prime minister ... Primakov is the latest, dismissed ... ostensibly for failing to revive the economy. The actual reason is doubtlessly more Byzantine. Like Yeltsin's previous decapitations, the removal of Primakov and his cabinet leaves Moscow's domestic and foreign policies in disarray."

The paper's editorial continues: "Just how the dismissal relates to a planned impeachment vote in the Duma this weekend is unclear, though it seems likely Yeltsin's decision will arm his opponents. The charges against Yeltsin, compiled by the Communists, would seem bizarre almost anywhere else. Among other things, he is accused of instigating the collapse of the Soviet Union, which of course he did and for which the world is eternally grateful."

As for former Interior Minister Stepashin, the NYT notes he "has spent his life in internal security jobs, not exactly a breeding ground for democracy. In the turbulent world of Kremlin politics, he may never be confirmed by the Duma. If he is, he can probably look forward to being dismissed by Yeltsin someday. That is, if Yeltsin is still president."

NEW YORK TIMES: Boris wants to stay in control, politically and physically

New York Times columnist William Safire also comments on the Russian crisis in a commentary entitled, "Boris Strikes Again." Primakov was fired, he writes, "not only because he is an economic ignoramus but because he did not stand up for his boss to the Communist impeachers. Until recently he had been warning Communists in the Duma that if they impeached Yeltsin, he would resign as prime minister. But this week the ambitious ex-spy-master changed his mind and told them he would stick around, impeachment or not, which impelled Boris to yank him."

"What does Yeltsin want?" the columnist then asks. Safire's answer is multiple: Yeltsin, he says, "wants (1) to stay in control, politically and physically, until his last day in office; (2) to help defeat the Communists, his foes for the past decade, and (3) to keep the country stable enough to hold elections as scheduled. These are worthy goals and we should root for him to attain them."

"Unfortunately," Safire adds, "he may also want (4) to guarantee the welfare of his relatives and enriched oligarchs who sustain him, and (5) to bestride the world stage like the superpower Russia is no longer, protecting Serbia from the consequences of its state-sponsored savagery."

LIBERATION: New ordeals are likely for this ruined country

France's daily Liberation today carries a signed editorial by its foreign editor Jacques Amalric entitled "The Tsar's Doing." Amalric says: "If Russia has lived in humiliation for years now, it's first and foremost because of the abrupt turn-arounds, caprices and incoherence of its tsar-president, whose only preoccupation, it seems, is to do everything to ensure succeeding him will be as difficult as possible."

The editorial goes on: "One might believe that, after having touched bottom, Russia will finally rise again. But that would be wrong. Rather, new ordeals are likely for this ruined country, pillaged by some of its own [leaders]... Is the worst still to come?" Amalric then asks. "Thanks to Boris Yeltsin, among others, that possibility cannot be excluded."

He concludes: "Yesterday's act of force is not only a bad [omen] for a swift diplomatic solution in Kosovo. It foreshadows new convulsions in an exhausted country that remains the world's second biggest nuclear power."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: It remains to be seen how far Yeltsin can withstand the fight with Russia's destructive forces

In Denmark, the daily Berlingske Tidende writes: "By firing Primakov, President Boris Yeltsin has again thrown his country into a crisis that will have great political and economic consequences unless it is solved quickly -- which is hardly likely. The communists in the Russian Duma," the paper warns, "will interpret Primakov's firing as a declaration of war [by Yeltsin] and they will surely strike back."

The editorial goes on: "As premier, Primakov managed to bring some stability after the chaos of last summer, when the ruble had to be severely devalued. But he never introduced structural reforms, which are the only chance for his country to make reasonable progress. On the contrary, he opposed liberalization of the economy because he thought the state should play the decisive role in the market."

The paper concludes: "With his move, Yeltsin has sharpened Russia's political debate ahead of the parliamentary vote in the winter and the presidential elections due next year. This is in a way commendable, since Yeltsin has shown voters that there are other ways to handle the political and economic impasse that has brought Russia to the edge of collapse. But it remains to be seen how far the old man in the Kremlin can withstand the fight with Russia's destructive forces."