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Western Press Review: Commentators Find Ironic Relief In Tragedy

  • Don Hill

Prague, Feb. 8 (NCA) -- Western commentary ranges over the Chechen war, Austro-European politics, and terrorism -- with a touch of schadenfreude as a unifying theme.

Russian acting President Vladimir Putin has declared the fall of Grozny a great victory. Leading U.S. newspapers describe it in terms more like that of King Pyrrhus of Epirus in the 3rd century B.C., who said of a costly battle, "Another such a victory and I am undone," thus giving rise to the term Pyrrhic victory.

WASHINGTON POST: This is not likely to be a victory that Russian schoolchildren will celebrate generations hence

The Washington Post puts it this way in an editorial: "Grozny resembled nothing so much as Stalingrad, reduced to rubble by Hitler's troops before the Red Army inflicted a key defeat that Russian schoolchildren still celebrate."

The editorial says also: "Civilians are caught in the crossfire of every war, but in this case cold-blooded executions, looting, roundups of adult males and attacks on civilian convoys seem consistent with [Russia's] overall strategy. The capture of the ghost capital did not appear to temper this approach. The Post's Daniel Williams reported from Chechnya that indiscriminate attacks on towns and villages outside Grozny seem to have accelerated yesterday. A Russian reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Andrei Babitsky, whom Russian forces detained and now will not account for, still has not surfaced. All in all, this is not likely to be a victory that Russian schoolchildren will celebrate generations hence."

NEW YORK TIMES: Putin does his countrymen no favor by encouraging misguided reaction

The New York Times plays a similar refrain, as follows: "The year may be 2000, but Grozny could easily be mistaken for the smoking rubble of a European city [around] 1945. Russian forces, using the blunt weapons of World War Two, have shelled and bombed the Chechen capital into an uninhabitable hell, a city so devastated that it will most likely be abandoned by the Chechens who long called it home and by the Russians who now cruelly declare that it has been liberated."

The editorial concedes: "The best that can be hoped now is that Russia will let international aid organizations provide humanitarian relief to Chechen civilians, and will make good on its 1996 promise to help rebuild the shattered ethnic enclave. Moscow will be fortunate if the war does not produce retaliatory terrorist attacks. Many Russians seem to think the capture of Grozny is cause for celebration. Mr. Putin does his countrymen no favor by encouraging that misguided reaction."

BOSTON GLOBE: America should oppose the war because it is cruel and destabilizing, not because it is a Russian blunder

The Boston Globe, however, sings the song in a different key. The newspaper scolds U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for rightly condemning the war for the wrong reasons. Here are excerpts from the Boston Globe's editorial: "Albright, who was impressed with the pragmatism of Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin during a three-hour meeting last week in the Kremlin, has repeatedly lamented that Russian leaders are riding a tiger in Chechnya. The tiger in this figure of speech is Moscow's current offensive against Chechnya. Albright's meaning is that the rider is fated to lose control of the tiger: that the war, if not stopped soon, will devour the ruling group in the Kremlin."

The editorial continues: "Albright's warning to Putin makes sense only as a reminder that the war is unwinnable. As recent events in Chechnya suggest, the Kremlin has once again launched its bedraggled army into a counterinsurgency struggle with no sensible exit strategy. The Chechen fighters who fled the capital city of Grozny will join their fellows in the southern mountains to fight against their historic enemies indefinitely."

"If Albright truly wants to help end the Chechen bloodletting," the Boston Globe concludes, "she should cease pretending that Putin misunderstands his self-interest. America should oppose the war because it is cruel and destabilizing, not because it is a Russian blunder."

NEW YORK TIMES: Journalists found it hard to imagine Putin had not been informed of goings-on in the Babitsky case

The New York Times mentions Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's missing reporter Andrei Babitsky in passing in its editorial on Chechnya. German commentator Tomas Avenarius, writing from Moscow yesterday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, takes on the Babitsky case directly. For a conclusion, however, Avenarius offers only questions.

He writes: "Serious articles have touched on the fact that [Russian acting] President Putin is an ex-head of the secret service, the FSB. Quoting FSB sources, journalists found it hard to imagine he had not been informed of goings-on in the Babitsky case. Reading between the lines, the question the analysts were asking was unmistakable: has something happened to the journalist, and if so, did it happen with the consent of the Kremlin?"

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The chances of Babitsky still being alive are pretty slim

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung's writer examines the Russian press closely for clues, but finds only more questions. In his words: "'Operation Wash Away the Traces' ran the headline in Sevodnya, which amounts to a presumption that they have probably just killed him.'

Avenarius again: "The chances of his still being alive are pretty slim, seeing as the authorities have said that after the swap they could no longer be held responsible for his safety, said Vladimir Baburin, a colleague of Babitsky from The Moscow Times."

The writer says that Babitsky was one of those reporters who didn't accept the official Moscow version of Chechen events, but who reported the facts that he saw. In Avenarius's phrase: "For Moscow, reason enough to label Babitsky a terrorist sympathizer."

The commentator says that Russian government comments sounded like gloating. And, then, as he puts it: "Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev went even further, declaring it was hardly worth making a fuss over someone like Babitsky. 'I would swap ten Babitskys for one single Russian soldier,' he trumpeted. In the face of this cynicism, the news agency Novye Isveztiya wrote 'We would swap ten field marshals like Sergeyev for one single journalist like Babitsky.'"

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Kicking Austria out of the EU isn't going to make the problem go away

EU and U.S. condemnation of Austria for admitting Joerg Haider's rightwing Freedom Party into the government runs into some condemnation of its own from Western commentators. Columnist George Melloan writes this in the conservative Wall Street Journal Europe: "[U.S. National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger offered a puzzling explanation Saturday of why [U.S. President Bill] Clinton had imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria for behaving like a democracy. [Berger said:] "Democracy is about more than elections. It is also about shared values.'" The columnist asks, "Really?"

Melloan says that not all of Haider's ideas are bad. Melloan: "For one thing, he wants to break up the cozy protective relationships that have built up in Austrian commerce and industry during all those years of SPD rule. [The problem of Austria needs to be faced, and] kicking Austria out of the EU isn't going to make it go away."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The Taliban suddenly finds itself on the side of the victims

Turning to the hijacking of an Afghan airplane, which is now isolated with as many as 160 hostages aboard at an airport north of London, commentator Peter Muench in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung calls the case "An Act of Poetic Justice."

Muench elaborates thus: "There are two things which the Taliban is said to have mastered to excellence. One is battle by Koran and Kalashnikov, tools which it used to great effect in taking over 90 percent of the country. The other is its sponsoring of terrorist acts around the world."

The commentator writes also: "But in its unrivaled position as the godfather of international terror, the Taliban will have been rather taken aback to find itself suddenly on the side of the victims, facing blackmail from a bunch of plane hijackers."