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Western Press Review: Commentary Focuses On Yeltsin

By Brent McCann/Dora Slaba/Anthony Georgieff

Prague, 3 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A number of Western commentators discuss the resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as his interim successor.

NEW YORK TIMES: The move upended expectations and scrambled Russian politics

The New York Times says in an editorial that this last surprise was like many of Yeltsin's previous actions. As the editorial puts it: "Like so many of (his) gambits over the years, the move upended expectations and scrambled Russian politics. It also came with a promise of immunity from prosecution for Yeltsin for any misdeeds of his government." The editorial continues: "That will likely roil the coming presidential campaign, a fitting legacy for a courageous but disappointingly erratic man who guided Russia through the first years of a turbulent, still unfinished journey from tyranny to democracy."

The paper says Yeltsin's move sets up Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to become president. Under the Russian constitution, Putin acts as president following Yeltsin's resignation. The newspaper says this gives Putin an advantage in presidential elections now set for March. In the editorial's words, "Yeltsin, for one last time, seemed to be betting that an impulsive, bold move would turn Russia toward a more promising future."

But the newspaper says that Putin's political instincts remain unclear. He is a former KGB officer who, the editorial says, has prosecuted a brutal assault on Chechnya, while encouraging economic reform and calling for improved relations with the West. In the editorial's words: "After Yeltsin's uneven leadership, Russia could use a steady, reform-minded president who knows how to run an efficient government."

WASHINGTON POST: Partly noble, partly rotten: an appropriate end to Yeltsin's tumultuous reign

The Washington Post says Yeltsin's unexpected resignation is a fitting way to end his political career. In an editorial's words: "flair was (Yeltsin's) consistent trademark." The paper says that Yeltsin's premature exit also fits the complex legacy that he has left and it can be interpreted more than one way. As the editorial puts it: "On the one hand (Yeltsin) acted within the constitution, paving the way for Russia's first ever peaceful, lawful change of power from one living leader to another. On the other, by ducking out a half year before his term expired and grabbing legal immunity from prosecution on his way out the Kremlin door, he injected the sour odor of a cooked deal into democratic Russia's first transition." The editorial continues, "Partly noble, partly rotten: an appropriate end to his tumultuous reign."

The editorial numbers among Yeltsin's accomplishments dismantling the old communist regime while not allowing the country to fall back into another dictatorship, defending freedom of expression, and promoting fair elections.

At the same time, the editorial says, Yeltsin fell short of his goals of bringing democracy and a market economy to Russia. It says history will fault him for his naivet, his faltering reform efforts, his toleration of corruption, and the wars in Chechnya.

The editorial says this: "His calculated departure deprives Russia of one more notch of normality as it attempts to live under predictable, democratic rules."

The paper also says this: "Mr. Putin now promises to restore the strength of the Russian state, an implicit rebuke of his predecessor. The goal is beyond reproach." The editorial continues, "A state so weak that it cannot enforce its laws, pay its pensions or protect its army recruits from sadistic hazing is a menace to everyone, and to the weakest most of all."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Little has really changed in the exercise of power in Russia

The Financial Times also says Putin is most likely to win the upcoming presidential elections. And the paper contrasts him to Yeltsin this way: "(He) is a much younger, fitter more vigorous man, clearly efficient and effective in what he does. He has been an able aide to men of power. He represents a new generation in Russia."

The editorial continues with this "But given his background, lack of political experience, and the manner of his promotion, questions about him abound." The paper says people question if Putin is his own master, if he is truly devoted to promoting democracy, and whether he has enough knowledge about economics.

In the words of the editorial: "Tackling these questions must be top priority for Mr. Putin. His decision to grant legal protection from prosecution to Mr. Yeltsin and his family, undoubtedly an important factor in persuading the president to go quickly and quietly, was a bad signal. It shows how little has really changed in the exercise of power in Russia: there is one rule of law for the privileged, another for the people." In conclusion, the editorial says Putin should encourage genuine transparency and democracy and abide by Russia's constitution.

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: Russia is too big and too powerful to keep fumbling from crisis to crisis

An editorial in The Christian Science Monitor focuses on the speech Yeltsin gave when he announced his resignation. In the speech, Yeltsin asked for forgiveness from the Russian people for not being able to deliver to the Russians an easy transition from communism to a democratic, free market society.

The editorial says this about the request: "Yeltsin's apparently sincere contrition -- a graceful act that few Western leaders have made -- opens the possibility for Russians to reflect on their own responsibilities and to move on." The editorial continues, "Russia is too big and too powerful to keep fumbling from crisis to crisis."

The editorial is skeptical of Putin's intentions as president. In the editorial's words: "If he wins the March election for president...Putin will try to avoid Yeltsin's mistake of quick and unguided reform. The former spy chief believes Russians aren't ready for less state control." The editorial continues, "Rather, Putin wants to turn the clock back and reinstall government as the initiator and driving force of all change because Russians are not ready to become self-reliant individuals."

The paper also questions Putin's plans to boost Russia's military spending by half, restore Russia's honor in Chechnya and oppose expanding American influence: "We wonder if such teeth-baring masks a Yeltsin-style ability to admit mistakes. Modesty is not a weakness when a country's future is at stake."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Time will show whether Putin will adhere to the maxims of democracy

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Avenarius describes Yeltsin's resignation as a perfectly staged exit.

Avenarius gives Yeltsin credit for giving the Russians freedom, but points to Yeltsin's shortcomings as a leader. As Avenarius puts it: "the restructuring from a planned economy to a market economy was drastic, unsocial, brutal and insufficient. Ten years later, Russia's economy is half-privatized and fully Mafia-ridden; large sections of the population are damned."

The commentator says Yeltsin's legacy makes Putin's job daunting, if he becomes the next elected president. In his words: "Putin...will have to prove himself as a genuine Hercules if he wants to solve the problems." Avenarius continues, "[Putin] seems to possess the necessary toughness. Time will show whether he will adhere to the maxims of democracy."

INFORMATION: Yeltsin in fact violated the very principles that we hold so dear.

In Denmark, the Information has an editorial that says Yeltsin's exit was well-timed in another way. As the editorial puts it: "[Yeltsin] has never liked being in the media spotlight, and on the last day of 2000, when all the TV stations were preoccupied with the coming millennium, the announcement that he resigned was supposed to go unnoticed."

The editorial says Yeltsin did both good things and bad things as president and offers one example of what the paper considers some of his worst behavior. In the words of the editorial: "When [Yeltsin] assaulted the Russian parliament in 1993 in what in effect was a coup d'etat...and changed the constitution to enable himself to rule by decree and without the parliamentary sanction, Yeltsin in fact violated the very principles that we hold so dear."

The paper looks at Putin being the next president and says he is synonymous with the wars in Chechnya and could be harmed if Russians' attitude toward the war changed. Right now, in the paper's words, "Putin's...popularity mirrors the public identification of power with national identity, which Russians have searched for ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union."

The paper foresees that Putin will follow a more hard-line political course than did Yeltsin and points out that Putin has already rebuked a proposal returning the constitution to what it was before Yeltsin's changes.