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Western Press Review: Russia In Crisis

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's critical problems -- notably, terrorism and alleged governmental corruption -- remain a chief subject of Western press commentary today. Analysts focus largely on the effects of the ongoing terrorist wave of bombings and on what many see as the Moscow government's weaknesses.

ECONOMIST: Russians deserve a better government

The current issue of the British weekly Economist [dated Sept. 18] says "The bombing campaign is but the latest tribulation for Russians. Even before it started," the magazine's editorial adds, "they deserved a better government."

The editorial goes on: "Unfortunately for Russia, its government is now more incompetent, corrupt and generally disreputable than it has been since the collapse of communism at the start of the 1990s." It also notes that "much hand-wringing is taking place in the West about Russia and who 'lost' it. In truth, [however], Russia ... is not utterly lost, nor would it be the West's fault if it were. If the state of Russia is to improve ... it will be done by Russians, not outsiders."

The magazine adds: "[President Boris] Yeltsin has played a part in changing Russia for the better, but not recently. The voters now deserve someone in better health, surrounded by capable and honest advisers, and committed to [essential] reforms. ...That person might not instantly end the bombing campaign. But...with a better government in Moscow, the malcontents in the regions might see the merits of staying in the federation rather than trying to secede."

GUARDIAN: Moscow's threats are both dangerous and potentially self-defeating

Two other British publications, the Guardian and Financial Times newspapers, also discuss the state of Russia today. The Guardian's editorial says that the terrorist bombs that killed hundreds in the past fortnight has "further [weakened] Yeltsin's shaky grip on power."

The paper recalls that "the crisis derives from [an] incursion into the semi-autonomous, semi-anarchic republic of Dagestan last month by Chechen Islamic militants." But it notes that "unlike relatively homogenous Chechnya, Dagestan ... is a fragile entity comprising 40 ethnic groups, warring clans, religious sects, pagans, old-style atheists and Mafia gangs. Amid this barely contained ... brutishness, Islamic fundamentalism has spread."

All this, the paper concludes, renders "Moscow's threats to punish Chechnya, and to launch a big offensive in Dagestan, both dangerous and potentially self-defeating. To beat terrorism," it says, "Russia must first understand its causes -- and then pursue a [more systematic] approach."

FINANCIAL TIMES: It is not the time for any drastic changes in policy toward Russia

The Financial Times says, "The situation in Russian today is volatile in the extreme." For one thing, the paper notes, "a struggle for power is under way, with the succession to Boris Yeltsin as president next year the supreme prize." Two other elements, the FT says, "have made this bitter contest even more potentially explosive."

First, the editorial cites "the existence of localized but bloody conflicts, first in Chechnya and now in neighboring Dagestan. ... The other factor," it goes on, "is the web of corruption which has entangled much of the Russian economy, including its banks and energy industries."

The FT writes further: "Most of the West has been guilty of putting too much faith in a particular group surrounding Mr. Yeltsin. Using the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to lend money to Moscow for essentially political reasons has also damaged the good name of that institution." But it concludes: "In this feverish atmosphere, it is not the time for any drastic changes in policy toward Russia. Any such move would become dynamite in the struggle for power in the Kremlin."

CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Russian officials hope to minimize their own failure to resolve the problems of the Caucasus

A news analysis by Colin McMahon in today's Chicago Tribune says that Russian "intelligence agents say they are convinced that terrorist groups based abroad are shoveling millions of dollars to Islamic militants bent on destabilizing the nation." Writing from Moscow, McMahon notes that Russian intelligence believes that Chechen militants "are funded in no small part by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire accused by the U.S. and [others] of funding and fomenting global terrorism."

McMahon is careful to add that Moscow officials offer no concrete proof of Russia's allegations against bin Laden, which the writer notes "help portray Russia as the victim of an international scourge, not just a nation beset by intractable domestic conflicts. They also," he says, "provide a common enemy to Moscow and Washington, two capitals long more accustomed to arguing, not agreeing, over the terrorist issue."

But the writer adds: "Independent observers question how much help the militants are getting from abroad. They say that by blaming the bombings and the Dagestan conflict on 'international saboteurs,' Russian officials hope to minimize their own failure to resolve the problems of the Caucasus." Still, the commentator says, "the issue concerns Russia enough that Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo raised it in recent talks with FBI Director Louis Freeh. And Russian ... agents have been stepping up cooperation with their U.S. counterparts and others to combat international terrorism."

WASHINGTON POST: Russians had some cynical and well-compensated accomplices in the U.S.

In the Washington Post today, a commentary by analyst Matthew Brzezinski puts much of the blame for Russia's current corruption on the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A former Moscow correspondent, Brzezinski recalls: "When [U.S.] promoter Paul Tatum was shot to death in 1996 ... Moscow's [Western] expatriates were shockingly unsympathetic. The unfortunate entrepreneur, so the reasoning went, had brought trouble on himself by violating one of the fundamental rules of doing business in Russia: He had complained loudly about corruption."

The commentary goes on: "Nothing has changed in Russia since Paul Tatum's brutal death, with the exception, perhaps, that the Americans are no longer making money there -- and are thus free to be belatedly sanctimonious." He also blames the U.S.'s Wall Street for "direct responsibility for Russia's sorry state of [financial] affairs. ... American stockbrokers wrote the book on Russia's supposed industrial recovery, publishing such rosy reports that U.S. and British fund managers went to ingenious lengths to buy restricted shares of murky companies like [the gas giant] Gazprom."

So, asks Brzezinski, "where did mobsters and corrupt Russian officials learn about the intricate art of money laundering? And who introduced Russian businessmen to the joys of such offshore tax havens as Cyprus?" His answer: "If Russians have perfected their financial sleight-of-hand wizardry over the past few years, it is because they had some cynical and well-compensated accomplices [in the U.S.]."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The time to act is now

A commentary by analyst Brett Wagner in the Wall Street Journal Europe today discusses another element of Russia's current critical situation -- "its long-standing offer to sell its stockpiles of excess weapons-grade uranium." The writer believes "the time has come to take Russia up on the offer."

Wagner writes: "Russia has never developed a reliable system for protecting the enormous stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium it inherited from the Soviet Union. ... Small caches of these nuclear materials have already begun leaking out of Russia. It would take only 20 or 30 pounds of highly enriched uranium to arm a device capable of leveling a city the size of lower Manhattan [in New York City]."

The commentary goes on: "The question is: How long does [the U.S.] have before it runs out of luck? How long before some of Russia's uranium winds up in the hands of [accused] terrorists like Osama bin Laden or regimes like Saddam Hussein's?" He adds: "The price tag would be remarkably low. The cost of purchasing 500 tons of Russia's highly enriched uranium ... is approximately $8 billion." He sums up: "With Russian parliamentary elections due later this year, and a presidential election next June -- which may well bring in a government less friendly to the West than Mr. Yeltsin's -- the time to act is now...."