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Western Press Review: Russia, Afghan Hijacking Drama


By Don Hill/Anthony Georgieff



Prague, 28 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A number of commentators in the Western press join today in examining Russia with a critical tone.

INFORMATION: Putin's government has failed to develop a credible strategy for Chechnya

Denmark's daily Information says in an editorial that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems to have overlooked that at least 250,000 Chechens -- people whom the Kremlin insists are Russian citizens -- have been put to flight, and that another 25,000 have been left stranded and under siege in Grozny. The newspaper says that Putin's government has failed to develop a credible strategy for Chechnya.

Information says this: "Nikolai Koshman, the Russian representative for the region, concedes that the $300 million Moscow has earmarked for reconstructing Grozny [after the war ends will] not suffice. Helping reconstruct Chechnya will be of fundamental significance if Russia ever wants to halt the radicalism and the organized crime that have undermined Chechen society since the 1994-96 war."

In the editorial's words: "In fact, the main reason for the proliferation [of crime and radicalism in Chechnya] has been Russia's refusal [since the last war's truce] to live up to its promises of massive help for the republic."

NEW YORK TIMES: Moscow's actions call into question its willingness to abide by the standards of behavior now prevailing in most of Europe

The New York Times laments in an editorial today that Russia is ending the year and the century with what the newspaper calls "a spasm of violence in Chechnya." As the editorial puts it, "Moscow seems intent on leveling the Chechen capital Grozny, risking tens of thousands of innocent lives and threatening to damage its relations with Muslim nations, Europe and the United States."

In the words of the editorial, "The Russian attack is a methodical effort to expunge the humiliations of the 1994-96 Chechen war. Separatist rebels in that conflict fought unprepared Russian troops to a standstill and made Grozny a battered symbol of their resistance."

The New York Times continues with this: "Moscow's actions call into question its willingness to abide by the standards of behavior now prevailing in most of Europe outside the Balkans. The war has already deformed Russian democracy by driving many reformers into an unnatural embrace of military nationalism."

The editorial is not hopeful about the chances that Moscow will negotiate a compromise peace. In its words, "Unfortunately, given the war's popularity among Russian leaders and voters, there seems little chance that will happen before Grozny is destroyed and Russia is diminished."

Two commentators in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and one in Germany's Die Welt newspaper look beyond the immediate Chechnya conflict.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Russia's rulers will enter the new millennium on the basis that was the keynote of Russian politics and history in the old: that of violence

Tomas Avenarius writes this from Moscow in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung: "Christmas and the New Year seem to wield a spell on Russian rulers and their generals -- albeit not one of the peace-loving kind that the festive season engenders in other people." He says that what he calls a "Christmas surprise" occurred in 1979, when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. In 1994, he writes, the Russian army ran into a fiasco in Chechnya. And now, in Avenarius words, "The attack on Grozny begun at 0000 hours on Christmas Day 1999 cannot be said to have come as a surprise. It was clear that Russian Defense Ministry planners would make use of the quiet that descends on Western government ministries and newspaper offices over the Christmas season."

The writer continues with this: "The result of the Russian millennium offensive is clear, and victory is a distinct possibility. But it is also clear that Russia's rulers will enter the new millennium on the basis that was the keynote of Russian politics and history in the old: that of violence."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Maybe, someday, the Kremlin will realize that Gorbachev's metaphor also applies to Chechnya

Also in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, commentator Frank Nienhuysen in Moscow invokes the memory of Afghanistan. As he puts it: "Twenty years ago this week, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan -- and Russia is still paying the high price of that war. In Moscow's underground railway cars, the wounds of Afghanistan still bleed today. Sometimes they're hidden under the dirty bandages worn by a crippled veteran of Afghanistan."

As Nienhuysen tells it: "Their personal trauma, a trauma that soon became a national one for the Soviet Union [began] on December 27, 1979, [when] 5,000 Red Army paratroopers descended on Afghanistan's capital, Kabul."

The writer concludes that several years later, in a speech at the Communist Party's 1986 Party Day, "Then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev opened the gates for the troops to come home ... when he called Afghanistan 'one big, bleeding wound.'" Nienhuysen says that "Maybe, someday, the Kremlin will realize that Gorbachev's metaphor also applies to Chechnya."

DIE WELT: The Soviet superpower's demise has led to the cards being reshuffled in the Central Asian power game

Also writing from Moscow, Die Welt's commentator Manfred Quiring says this: "Chechnya is not the only hot spot where Russia is in hot water. After a series of unsuccessful Russian rocket launches Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled that for the time being no more Russian Proton rockets are to be launched from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan. That might be rated a temporary disagreement which can quickly be resolved by means of skillful negotiation and financial compensation, but for Russia it is much more. It is the writing on the wall."

The writer says that Russia now must learn to accept objections raised by former vassals in sectors such as space research, which it still sees as one of its strategic interests. Quiring says that Central Asia is what he calls "the soft underbelly of the Russian empire" and is slipping away from Moscow's grip."

Quiring writes: "With the exception of Tajikistan, where the language spoken is related to Farsi, the post-Soviet Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- all speak Turkic languages and are Sunni Muslims. When they gained independence in 1991 they did so in a wave of national self-awareness. Recalling national traditions was accompanied by a recovery of Islam, which can now be practiced largely free from hindrance once more. One of the consequences has been the exodus of millions of ethnic Russians from the region."

In Quiring's words: "Since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian interests have not just been impinged upon by newly-independent nation states. The Soviet superpower's demise has led to the cards being reshuffled in the Central Asian power game too."

Quiring says that the United States, Turkey and Iran are new powers in Central Asia. And so, he writes, is China. As the commentary puts it: "China has made sure of border treaties with Central Asian states with which it shares a border, extending trade and investment ties too. In return, Beijing has been given assurances that the Central Asian states will not be backing Uighur nationalists or Islamic fundamentalists keen to set up an independent state in the Chinese province of Xinjiang."

Commentaries in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and The Times, London, consider implications of the continuing crisis surrounding a hijacked Indian Airlines passenger plane which still sits on a runway in the Afghan city of Kandahar.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The hijacking has provided Afghanistan with an opportunity to clearly show who is in charge of the country

The German newspaper's Rudolph Chimelli, in Paris, provides some essential background. When Indian security forces arrested Maulvi Mohammed Masoud Azhar in Kashmir in 1994, Azhar predicted that his comrades would force his release. Chimelli writes, "Nearly six years later, five of Azhar's followers are trying to force India to release the jailed Pakistani preacher -- in return for the lives of 160 innocent passengers on board a hijacked Indian airliner...."

The writer says that Azhar is the spiritual leader of an Islamic movement called Harakat ul-Mujahedin with several thousand followers in Pakistani Kashmir as well as in Indian-controlled, majority Muslim areas near the border.

The German writer says that Afghanistan's governing Taliban perceive an opportunity in the crisis. He puts it this way: "The hijacking has provided [them] an opportunity to clearly show who is in charge of the country, and a chance to gain some credit internationally if the negotiations lead to success. The Taliban are at pains to avoid any references which may be taken as sympathy for the hostage-takers or as support for their demands."

TIMES: Mutual suspicion between India and Pakistan is growing stronger

In an editorial, The Times condemns what it calls the "ineffectual bungling" of both Indian and Pakistani leaders in handling the hijacking. The Times says this: "Whether this hijacking ends in relief or a bloodbath, it makes painfully clear that mutual suspicion between India and Pakistan is growing stronger. Suggestions of improvements [in relations] last spring by India, and in the autumn by Pakistan, have led nowhere."

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