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Western Press Review: Putin Gets A Wary Greeting

  • Don Hill

Prague, 10 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Western Press today reacts skeptically, even cynically, to word of yet another abrupt change in Russia's government.

Here's a sampling of headlines:

Russia's Parade of Prime Ministers.

Yeltsin Rearranges the Deck Chairs, [that is, engages in irrelevant activities on a sinking ship].

Son of Yeltsin.

Yeltsin Strikes Again.

Coup de Theatre.

Succession War in Kremlin.

Prime Minister No. 5.

Writing from Moscow in a Frankfurter Rundschau news analysis, Florian Hassel describes the new prime minister designate, Vladimir Putin, as a shadowy figure. He writes that Putin is little known to Russians or foreigners, but is adept at navigating the serpentine corridors of Kremlin power. Seldom seen, Putin already was known in inner circles as "the gray cardinal" in July 1998 when Russian President Boris Yeltsin named him head of the FSB, successor agency to the KGB. Hassel writes that, in March, Yeltsin named Putin his national security adviser, with, in his words, "powers unprecedented in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union."

The New York Times says in an editorial: "These are strange and dispiriting times in Moscow." The newspaper continues: "Yeltsin and his evanescent governments seem increasingly irrelevant to the lives of most Russians, a sorry picture for a man who did much to free his nation from the stranglehold of communism."

An editorial in The Independent, London, charges that Yeltsin seeks to anoint a successor to shield himself from possible prosecution for corruption following Russian elections next June. The Independent observes that a powerful opposition coalition seems to be developing. The newspaper says: "Thus the summons to Mr. Putin." Meanwhile, the editorial declares: "The endlessly suffering, endlessly patient Russian people go about their business scornful and uncaring of this new farce acted out in their midst."

In a commentary in today's French daily Le Monde, Jean Baptiste Naudet says that Yeltsin's nomination of Putin is only the latest in a series of what he calls "coup de theatre." He writes: "The sick and isolated old czar has [shown again] that neither he, his family nor those faithful to him are willing to leave the political stage in a country where, historically, no leader has ever democratically transferred power to a successor."

Commentator Daniel Broessler asks in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung: "What is Boris Yeltsin good for?" and answers: "For a surprise sometimes, nothing more." Broessler says that Yeltsin had nothing against outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who should not take his dismissal personally. "It is not about him;" Broessler writes, "It is about a war of succession in the Kremlin."

In Denmark, the daily Information opines in an editorial that the latest firing and hiring "reflects Boris Yeltsin's preoccupation with ensuring his cling on power and the continuation of government by his so-called Family -- an exclusive circle of Yeltsin's advisers as well as some select, rich businesspeople -- rather than with serving Russia and the Russians well." Information says that Russia is in turmoil, its economy collapsing, its military on the verge of another Chechnya-like war." The newspaper asks: "What does the president do under these circumstances?" And answers: "He fires a prime minister or two."

Aftenposten, in Norway, finds Yeltsin's behavior, in its word, "suspicious." Aftenposten says in an editorial: "What is suspicious, is [Yeltsin's] declared wish to have Putin replace him as president next year." The newspaper says that the chaotic lives of Russian governments demonstrate that "Russia can hardly be called a normal country."

For comparison purposes -- Reuters news agency reports from Moscow that Russian newspapers greet the latest Kremlin upheaval with a disdain that mirrors the Western reaction. The following are excerpted from the Reuters survey: "Fired Because of Family Complications" declares the top headline in the daily Sevodnya. "A Dismissal Out of the Clear Blue Sky," a Noviye Izvestia headline says. Noviye Izvestia's following commentary says: "In the record short 80 days of his government, [Sergei Stepashin] didn't achieve anything good, but of course he didn't mess up anything either." The daily shows a cartoon of Yeltsin placing a crown on a puppet Putin and declaring him Russia's president.

The financial daily Kommersant comments that the trigger for Yeltsin's unhappiness was an alliance reached last Wednesday between the Fatherland political bloc of his rival, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and the All Russia party of regional leaders. The newspaper says: "Stepashin not only was unable to oppose this, but when the Kremlin made a last desperate effort to advance Stepashin as [a leading politician], he retreated and announced that he would not join any political bloc." Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: "The present authorities do not enjoy even minimal support from any layer of society or government institutions, but in one manner or another they are hostage to the moods of Boris Yeltsin."

The Daily Telegraph, London, says that President Yeltsin's anointing of Putin for the presidency will carry little weight with the populace. The newspaper says in an editorial: "The president now is viewed widely as incapable of discharging his duties properly. To be endorsed by him could be the kiss of death."

In the United States, The Washington Post concurs. In an editorial, The Post says: "The value of a Yeltsin endorsement is at best dubious." The newspaper says also: "To make matters worse, the latest purge in Moscow comes at a moment of an ominous buildup of tensions in the Russian Caucasus Islamic republic of Dagestan, neighbor and kin to Chechnya."

The Guardian, London, says of Yeltsin's latest strike: "This time, it's calculation, not whim." Yeltsin's maneuverings, his reliance on men with KGB backgrounds, his "politics of dismissal" all show, in the Guardian's words, "how far democracy has degenerated under Yeltsin."

Joel Blocker, Robert McMahon, and Anthony Georgieff contributed to today's press review.