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Western Press Review: Chechnya Draws Commentary Anew

By Don Hill and Alexis Papasotiriou

Prague, 30 September 1999 (RFE/RL) 30 - Russia is raising the temperature and raising the stakes in the north Caucasus, drawing Western press commentators' attention back to Chechnya.

German commentator Manfred Quiring, writing from Moscow in Die Welt, calls the Russian bombing and missile campaign against Chechnya, in his term, "gruesome routine." Quiring acknowledges reports of Russian plans to close the border, invade the country in stages while installing favorable governments, cut off pensions and aid, and mobilize Chechens against their leaders. This does not, in the commentator's words, "leave room for negotiations with the elected Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov." Quiring declares this: "Russia clearly has not learned from a similar attempt to install a Moscow-friendly shadow cabinet during the first Chechnya war."

The Wall Street Journal Europe carries a commentary by its Contributing Editor Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion. Kasparov, a native Azerbaijani and now a U.S. resident, suggests that the Dagestan-Chechnya conflict largely has been concocted or exacerbated by Kremlin strategists. He says the Kremlin is trying to deflect attention from graft and corruption allegations surrounding the government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Yeltsin's family. Kasparov also throws doubt on a bombing and terrorist campaign in Moscow that Russian officials have been blaming on Islamic extremists from the Caucasus.

He writes this: "The claim by Russia's ruling elite that Chechnya has become a stronghold for international terrorism sponsored by wealthy Islamic fundamentalists has not been made any more convincing for the constant repetition. The competing theory -- the Federal Security Service is directly or indirectly behind the attack -- also is not so easily swallowed." Who benefits, Kasparov asks. The answer, in his words: "The terrorist attacks and North Caucasus conflict provided the perfect diversion from the unpleasant business of the headline-grabbing money-laundering scandals."

Greek commentator G.G. de Lastic gives weight to a similar conspiracy theme. He wrote yesterday in Kathimerini that Russian and Western press reports create the impression that -- in de Lastic's words -- "Yeltsin's close circle of allies, headed by the magnate Boris Berezovsky and the Russian secret services, have played a decisive role both in the sudden invasion by thousands of Chechen rebels into Dagestan and in the atrocious terrorist acts that cost the lives of 300 unsuspecting Russian citizens in Moscow and Volgodonsk -- in other words the two developments that the Kremlin used as a pretext to mount the attack against Chechnya. The writer added this: It is certain that Berezovsky funded the leader of the Islamist rebels Shamil Basayev with tens of millions of dollars. The Russian press also revealed that in Dagestan the Islamists used -- not Western or Soviet-era weapons -- but the newer type of Russian weapons, which came from an arms manufacturer that is controlled by one of Berezovsky's men.

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland writes today that, as he puts it: "The Russians went out of their way this week to point up similarities between NATO's Serbia campaign and the air attacks on Chechnya." Hoagland also writes this: "Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are beset by international accusations of corruption, a political war in Moscow they are losing, and savage, cowardly terrorist attacks on the civilian population by unknown bombers. If the overworked words 'beleaguered' and 'frustrated' retain meaning, they apply to these two men. They come to work each day plucking new arrows out of their chests."

Hoagland says that the United States should avoid and oppose any outside military intervention on either side; mount a speedy, highly visible effort to provide civilian humanitarian aid to all sides; and, in his words, "should not offer political support of any kind to a Russian military campaign that is driven by frustration and politics. To do so would undermine NATO's far more noble accomplishments through the use of force in Kosovo."

In London, The Times accepts the official version of the crisis. The Times says this in an editorial: "The attempts last month by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord, to extend his Islamist insurgency to Dagestan have heightened fears in Moscow of ethnic conflagration spreading across the northern Caucasus. Bombs in Moscow and other Russian cities have killed almost 300 people, causing panic and fueling contempt for the Chechens, long despised as schemers and thieves."

The Times says the prognosis is negative. In the editorial's words: "The West, with enough dilemmas already on intervention, is anxious to avoid a fresh humanitarian crisis. The impoverished Russian military has little money or patience for a drawn-out struggle. Mr. Putin, mindful of past humiliations, may still be forced to act. The long war looks set to resume."

On another topic, a number of commentaries look with favor on efforts by Romano Prodi, new president of the European Commission, to reform the scandal-smeared institution. The Financial Times puts it this way: "The new broom in Brussels has begun to sweep."

Nikolaus Blome, writing in Die Welt, describes Prodi's moves to shake up the positions of many of the heads of the 24 directorates-general of the European Commission. The writer says these are, in his words, the "most powerful Eurocrats in Brussels," often called "the barons." Blome writes this: "Above all, this is the first trial of strength for Prodi's ability to carry things through, and for his tact and sensitivity in dealing with an extremely complicated personnel package. And Prodi, former prime minister of Italy, appears to have passed the test. The majority of the barons are having to change their posts, and two who are known to be the weakest are to be pensioned off."

Frankfurter Rundschau commentator Michael Bergius uses these words to characterize the Prodi cleanup: "The European Commission is hurrying to implement its promises of radical reform, and the new codeword is rotation. Like it or not, scores of high-ranking bureaucrats are being shaken from the departments where they have grown comfortable -- and in the view of many, far too powerful -- and forced to take up new posts. Two weeks after its confirmation by the European Parliament, the European Commission is starting to follow through on the promises made by its president, Romano Prodi." ss