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Western Press Review: Events In Ukraine, Chechnya, France Under Discussion

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's presidential election, still incomplete after Sunday's (Oct. 31) first-round balloting, attracts some comment in the Western press today. So does Russia's apparently intensifying war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. But numerous West European press commentators focus on an event in their own area: yesterday's resignation, amid allegations of corruption, of France's influential finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which many see as having repercussions well beyond France's borders.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Ukraine has not done so badly

In a commentary on Ukraine's election for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Urban says: "The opinion pollsters were right: incumbent President Leonid Kuchma [now] faces a run-off against Communist leader Petro Symonenko in the second, decisive round of Ukraine's presidential elections [on Nov. 14]." He goes on to say that the run-off will be "a make-or-break [that is, decisive] election." It will determine, he believes, whether "Ukraine survives as a sovereign state -- where the principles of democracy and the market economy will one day prevail -- or whether it will join the Russia-Belarus union and become part of a resurgent Soviet Union that would doubtless pursue a confrontation course with the West."

"Kuchma stands for the first option," Urban says, "Symonenko for the second." But he quickly adds: "Kuchma is not a politician who arouses any particular interest or indeed sympathy abroad. ...What is more, during his period in office little progress has been made with political and economic reforms. For a start, his office has made massive and often heavy-handed efforts to control the media. [And] close colleagues and supporters of the president are embroiled in corruption scandals."

Still, the commentary sums up, "When it comes to democratization ... and compared with the other former Soviet republics, Ukraine has not done so badly. As a result, 37 million Ukrainian voters have the right to decide whether their country is to emulate Poland or Belarus. It is not just a case of choosing the lesser evil, but of determining the future of an important part of Europe."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The unfolding scenario is reminiscent of Ukraine's 1994 election

Urban believes that "there is almost no prospect that Symonenko can win" Ukraine's run-off. But in a news analysis for Britain's Financial Times, correspondent Charles Clover says that yesterday's announcement by Ukraine's Socialist party to support Symonenko in the second ballot has "dramatically boosted" the Communist leader's chances.

Writing from Kyiv, Clover notes that the Socialists came in third in last Sunday's balloting, and that in his words, "Symonenko is already counting on receiving the votes of Natalia Vitrenko, another hard-line leftist," who came in fourth. That means, he concludes, that if socialist and Vitrenko supporters follow their leaders' advice, Symonenko "will be close to a majority."

Clover writes further: "The unfolding scenario is reminiscent of Ukraine's 1994...elections, when Leonid Kravchuk [led] in the first round...while Kuchma took second [place]. Kuchma," he goes on, then "rallied the rest of the opposition [and protest voters] around him to win unexpectedly in the second round." Clover says that it is now possible for Symonenko to pull the same kind of upset on Kuchma.

INFORMATION: Kuchma is Ukraine's best hope to avert a new dictatorship of the proletariat

In Denmark, the daily Information says an editorial: "Under the leadership of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine has managed to circumvent the kind of violent disasters that generally make headlines in the West. Even the conflict with the Russian minority in Crimea and the problem of Moscow's Black Sea navy bases in Sevastopol -- which at one stage threatened to burst out into a third Crimean war -- have been resolved." Still, the paper adds, "Ukraine has not been able to escape a severe economic crisis. If Ukraine were a commercial company, it would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.

The paper goes on to say: "Despite his failure to implement economic reforms...Kuchma is the favorite both of the western part of Ukraine and of the West. ...[but] most independent observers hope that Kuchma will not use the same means employed by his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, to ensure victory for himself over the Communist candidate Symonenko in the run-off: total control over the media and selective cash injections by the [government-friendly business] oligarchy.

Denmark's Information writes further: "The West favors Kuchma as 'the devil we know' [which is preferable to the devil we don't know -- according to the English and, apparently, Danish proverb]." This suggests that Kuchma, who the paper says is "the former director of an SS-20 missile plant, a man who is reputed to be quite generous in distributing state money and presents to his own friends, and is also wary of a free press" is now what the paper calls "Ukraine's best hope to avert a new dictatorship of the proletariat."

INDEPENDENT: Tough diplomacy and economic threats to Moscow are essential

Turning to Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, Britain's Independent daily says in an editorial that "the West must stop ignoring the tragedy unfolding" in the embattled republic. Noting the growing toll of civilian casualties, the paper writes: "Moscow's war on Chechnya damages not just Chechnya but Russia itself. It is sad that Moscow fails to understand this point. It is equally depressing that Western politicians fail to understand the importance of what is happening in Chechnya today."

The editorial continues: "The near silence on [the subject of Chechen civilian casualties] from Western politicians is both shameful and familiar: During Boris Yeltsin's first war against Chechnya in 1995, Western leaders insisted that this was Russia's 'internal affair'... and today," the paper adds, "the West still does nothing. In Oslo yesterday, [U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton 'expressed concern,' [diplomatic language] for doing as little as possible.'

The paper writes further: "The Russian army believes it has a license to kill [in Chechnya]. This war is driven, above all, by Russian politics .... Yeltsin's government hopes to gain ... points with the voters by alleged attacks on the Islamic terrorists who have caused such mayhem in Moscow .... [But] military intervention [in Chechnya] is neither necessary nor practicable," the Independent concludes. "Tough diplomacy and economic threats [to Moscow] are, however, essential if the lunacy is to be reversed."

AFTENPOSTEN: Prime Minister Putin has failed to answer questions on attacks on innocent civilians

In Norway, the daily Aftenposten has a somewhat different view of Russia's attitude toward the West's criticisms of the war in Chechnya. The paper writes: "The fact that Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appears to understand the West's concern about the fate of the Chechen people is one of the most important results of [yesterday's] Oslo summit. Putin has agreed to allow a mission of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to be dispatched to the breakaway republic." "But," the paper adds, "...many questions about how the Russians conduct their war in Chechnya have yet to be answered. Massive attacks on towns hit as many innocent civilians as they do the alleged terrorists. ...Prime Minister Putin has failed to answer these questions."

Yesterday's resignation of French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an important figure not only on the national but international scene, evokes comment in virtually all West European countries. Strauss-Kahn resigned after allegations that he had taken some $100,000 illegally to help fund his Socialist Party's successful parliamentary campaign in 1997.

In resigning, he said he is innocent of the charges -- which are likely to lead to a prosecutor's investigation -- but that he believes a minister must step down in such circumstances. The practice of ministers resigning while under official investigation began in France under a conservative government only a few years before the current leftist coalition government took power.

Here is a brief selection of a great variety of press commentary:

FINANCIAL TIMES: The departure of the finance minister may well upset a delicate, but successful balance

In Britain, the Financial Times' editorial says that with Strauss-Kahn's departure, the 11 countries of the European Union that have joined the new common currency, the euro, have "lost one of [their] weightier policy-makers." The paper calls him the most significant finance minister in the euro zone, saying: "It was Mr. Strauss-Kahn who championed the idea of [providing] a political counterweight to the [EU's] European Central Bank .... and a forum for policy coordination among the [11]. ... In France," the paper adds, "Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, aided by Mr. Strauss-Kahn, has succeeded in managing a difficult coalition government. .... The departure of the finance minister may well upset a delicate, but successful balance."

TIMES: Jospin has been deprived of the best brain by far in his cabinet

The Times of London believes Strauss-Kahn's resignation will severely weaken Jospin's government. Its editorial says: " Not only has Mr. Jospin been deprived of the best brain by far in his cabinet and his most likely successor, should he seek and win the French presidency [in 2002]. He also loses the Socialists' most articulate sales representative to the business world." The paper adds: "There is another politically important reason for [Jospin] to hope that his brilliant ally will clear his name. ... The scandal Mr. Strauss-Kahn is embroiled in ... involves a host of Mr. Jospin's close collaborators." The Times of London says: "[Because the parties of the right] are also up to their neck in corruption investigations centered on the Paris mayor's office .... France could be in for a period of weakened, indecisive government."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Scandals of all sorts seem to be the hallmark of contemporary political life in France

The Wall Street Journal Europe carries both an editorial and a commentary on Strauss-Kahn's departure. The commentary, by French journalist Michel Gurfinkiel, focuses not only on the resigned minister but on the conservative mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, who allegedly has been repeatedly involved in embezzlement, nepotism and voter fraud. He writes: "Scandals of all sorts seem to be the hallmark of contemporary political life in France." Why is this so, Gurfinkiel asks? "It has to do," he says, "with the workings of French society and the French economy. .... [In campaign financing,] the political class had little option but to resort to bribes [and other illegal means] to find money for their campaigns. In the absence of an honest alternative, venality is a means to survival." Gurfinkiel adds: "The sad irony is that .... Tiberi and Strauss-Kahn are two of but a handful of political leaders who could have helped France move [away from state interventionism and] toward capitalism and therefore less corruption."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Strauss-Kahn saw the danger of his own government's worst foibles

The WSJ's editorial pays tribute to Strauss-Kahn's work as minister: "His contribution to the French economic performance and to the euro experiment was sometimes behind the scenes, and was so because he very much needed to stay that way. As a sensible economist, who saw the danger of his own government's worst foibles, such as a law forcing employees to work only 35 hours a week, he often strove to install shock absorbers. ... It's noteworthy that ... the head of the French employers' group said the departing minister would always be his friend." The Journal adds: "Mr. Strauss-Kahn was also behind some of the government's privatizations of state companies, actions [that were] anathema to the far Left."

DIE WELT: Jospin is to some extent a hostage of his own high moral claims

In Germany, commentator Jochen Hehn writes in Die Welt: "The principle of the presumption of innocence until one is proven guilty -- which in principle should also apply to a minister -- could not alter Strauss-Kahn's fate. Jospin deemed more important the unwritten rule [introduced by the conservatives] that a minister facing an investigation represents a burden to the government as a whole and should therefore forfeit his office." The commentary continues: "In the past, the Socialist prime minister has drawn a clear line between his government and the scandal-rich era of former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand (1981 to 1995). Jospin was therefore to some extent a hostage of his own high moral claims." Hehn concludes by noting that should Strauss-Kahn be exonerated, "the French people would breathe a sigh of relief. Many of them grew weary of politics over the long years of scandal, and had placed their hopes in Jospin's new government. They do not want to be disillusioned again."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The French government is facing its biggest crisis so far

In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Gerd Kroencke writes in a commentary from Paris that with Strauss-Kahn's resignation, the French "government is facing its biggest crisis so far. No one is irreplaceable, but 'Mr. Economy,' as Strauss-Kahn was respectfully called, will be very hard to replace." He goes on: "Strauss-Kahn can take some of the credit for the recent upswing in France and the fall in unemployment. Until now his career was considered to be irreversibly on the way up. He was admired as successful, charming and well educated." Kroencke then asks: "Could this man have been a crook? If the allegations are true that he accepted nearly $100,000 from France's largest student insurance company for work never carried out, it could turn out to be worse than all the political scandals which, until now, have mostly tainted France's conservative opposition."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: The latest corruption scandal in France is a severe blow for Premier Jospin

Denmark's Berlingske Tidende also comments on the affair, writing in an editorial: "The latest corruption scandal in France is a severe blow for Premier Jospin, who has made honest government one of his political emblems. Still, Jospin stands a good chance of overcoming the crisis because he has been so quick to find a replacement for Strauss-Kahn [former budget minister Christian Sautter]. In this way, he has managed to distance himself from the multitude of scandals that have plagued a series of conservative governments over the years."

LE MONDE: The Finance Minister leaves behind him an economy in full health

Finally, the left-of-center French daily Le Monde carries a tribute to Strauss-Kahn by Laurent Mauduit entitled "The Fall of a 'Talented' Minster." The word "talented" is put in quotation marks because Mauduit is citing the description yesterday of one of Strauss-Kahn's political opponents, parliamentarian Pierre Lellouche. The writer notes that Strauss-Kahn, a former university teacher of economics, managed to conceal his real political and economic orientations very well. That ambiguity, he adds, "served to blur the image of the government's economic policies," which served the purposes of both Strauss-Kahn and Jospin. In any case, the writer concludes, Strauss-Kahn leaves the Finance Ministry "with his imprint strong and leaves behind him an economy in full health."