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Western Press Review: Analyzing Putin's Victory

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 28 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The flow of Western press commentary on Sunday's Russian presidential election victory by Vladimir Putin continues unabated today. Analysts both analyze Putin's triumph and seek hints to the course his presidency is likely to take.

AFTENPOSTEN: Russias future course is murky

We'll begin today's selection of commentary on Putin with editorials in two Scandinavian dailies. In Norway, Aftenposten says that although the election's result is clear, Russia's future course is -- in the paper's words -- "murkier" than ever before. The paper writes: "No-one knows what course of action Vladimir Putin will take when he sets about solving his country's numerous problems." It adds: "With the possible exception of [former president] Boris Yeltsin when he was [Communist] party leader 15 years ago, none of Russia's leaders have been particularly interested in the plight of ordinary citizens. Putin," it says, "is unlikely to be any different."

The paper goes on to say that, if "Putin takes his job seriously he will have to rein in the kind of uncontrolled capitalism that has flourished in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union." The editorial calls this "'savage capitalism' [which, it says,] can be held responsible for many of Russia's present woes and for having encouraged over 30 percent of Russian voters to cast their ballots in favor of the Communist candidate."

"Putin's greatest challenge," Aftenposten concludes, "will be to prove to his fellow countrymen that the future might bring them some economic advantages."

INFORMATION: Putin's triumph is not the result of any real democratic debate

The Danish daily Information writes: "Putin's triumph is not the result of any real democratic debate in which voters were given the opportunity to choose among different standpoints. Rather," its editorial goes on, "it was an election in which Putin managed -- in the course of just eight months -- to slip out of total anonymity and secure for himself one of the world's most powerful positions. Remarkably," the paper adds, "he managed to do so without telling anyone what he really stands for."

The editorial continues: "The former KGB spy achieved his legitimacy through actions such as the war in Chechnya and the persecution of journalists. Russian voters were clearly impressed by these manifestations of power -- without any concern for their moral aspects."

Information then warns: "A more authoritarian and centralized Russia may jeopardize the very fundamentals of democracy. Should the power departments --such as the foreign ministry, the defense ministry and the FSB (security services) -- get more even more authority, Putin will find himself in the precarious position of having to master Russia's intricate [intra-governmental] power plays. Boris Yeltsin excelled in this, but Putin may not."

FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU: To call growing opposition chances good would be unfounded

In Germany, Karl Grobe writes in a commentary in the Frankfurter Rundschau: "There are already hints as to what Putin's rule will bring. Since Boris Yeltsin's carefully planned retirement into political nirvana on New Year's Eve, the influence of Russia's military-industrial complex has increased rapidly." He adds: "Putin's rule will not lead to democratic development. The Russian house has traditionally been built from the roof down and the structure underneath is obliged to follow orders from above."

Grobe also says: "While Putin's Russia lacks true democrats and is still dogged by the weakness of civil society, it is nonetheless conditioned to a strong state that uses its strength inside the country. In the long term, this state will tolerate the regions' leanings toward autonomy as little as it will the emergence of checks and balances, and of democratic control through [non-executive government] institutions." He concludes: "The fact that one in three voters chose candidates other than Putin shows that opposition is growing. [Some of Russia's] forces of change wish to see a civil society develop. But to call their chances good would be unfounded."

IRISH TIMES: Despite flaws, Russia has taken a further step down the path to democracy

In Dublin, the Irish Times also wonders how democratic the Russian election process really was. The paper says in its editorial: "Foreign observers have rightly pointed out that real political debate was largely absent in the course of the campaign. This was particularly evident on the main television channels, which acted generally as election agents for Mr. Putin. Genuinely independent and disinterested journalism was absent from what has become known as the 'pro-Kremlin channels.'"

The editorial goes on: "Another important democratic test which Russia has yet to pass is that in the presidential elections that have taken place since the collapse of communism, power has always remained in the hands of the incumbent. There has been no democratic transfer of power from one political group to another. This factor and the behavior of the most influential sections of the broadcast media are, of course, strongly linked."

Still, the paper argues that, "despite these flaws, Russia has taken a further step down the path to democracy. Mr. Putin now has a mandate from his country's electorate and faces large tasks in his attempts to restore pride and a decent standard of living to the people of a once-mighty nation. The ingredients for success exist."

TIMES: Western governments must be firmer in insisting that Russia finally bring in reforms

The Times of Britain writes of Putin's expressed desire for Russia to be what he calls a "strong state." The paper comments: "The type of strong state that Russia needs to become is one in which the law reigns supreme: where a functioning economy relies for income not merely on high world prices for oil sales, as at present, but on reliable tax income drawn, fairly and transparently, from across the population; where there are clear and simple laws governing ownership of property and land, which Russia still lacks; and where the judiciary is allowed to function independently."

The editorial continues: "To create a strong state along these lines, Mr. Putin will need to chart a course between encouraging political centralization and allowing economic autonomy. Politically, he will need to assert firmer control over Russia, still a mini-empire of conflicting and centrifugal interests; economically, by contrast, he must provide legal underpinning for business but then set it free to operate independently." It adds: "Putin's centralizing tendencies are emerging. Some ideas floated during the campaign were admirable, others disconcertingly authoritarian and reminiscent of his [KGB] with little respect for human rights or press freedoms."

The Times concludes: "Mr. Putin's willingness to cooperate with foreign governments and NATO should be encouraged by the West. But, given that the years of maverick rule are over and a firmer hand is at the Russian wheel, Western governments must also be firmer in insisting that Russia finally bring in the reforms -- of tax, property and investment law -- that it has promised for too long."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Other forces on the Russian political scene now have to be engaged

In today's Financial Times, a commentary by Moscow correspondent John Lloyd argues that "the election of Vladimir Putin gives the West a chance to rebuild its relationship [with Russia]." He writes: "The country has a new president in place early in a new century; there is also a new European Commission, and there will soon be a new U.S. president. Time, then, for a new kind of engagement with the country that matters more to Europeans than any other apart from the U.S."

Lloyd continues: "The old [West-Russia] elite-to-elite dialogue must now give way to a new, broadened relationship. Other forces on the Russian political scene now have to be engaged. These include political parties which are skeptical towards reforms, and also businesses, trade unions, intellectuals, professionals, students and non-governmental organizations." He adds: "Early naivete about the transformation of Russia -- the belief that mere release from an authoritarian system would render the construction of civil society an almost automatic process -- has proved wrong. Instead, the West and Russia must recognize that civil society needs time to develop."

"Finally," the commentator says, "Russia has to be treated as a grown-up state. It has interests, and concerns -- not all of which are reactionary or neo-imperialist. [For example,] its fears that NATO will expand to the Baltic states soon should be treated seriously, especially after Kosovo."

WASHINGTON POST: The era of romanticism in U.S.-Russian relations is over

The Washington Post finds that there were, in its words, "no real surprises in Russia's presidential election. [Putin] won -- albeit with a smaller majority than expected." It adds: "Now the conqueror of Chechnya enjoys a mandate of his own. His unequivocal defense of the Chechnya campaign is only one reason for concern. Evincing disdain for the electoral process, he offered only a vague campaign platform. His allies in the media stooped to anti-Semitism and other vile practices in their assault on his opponents. He has spent the bulk of his career as a KGB officer and now is surrounding himself with former colleagues."

The paper goes on: "Putin's foreign policy priority appears to be the restoration of Russia's 'greatness' -- perhaps through closer links to states such as Iran and China, and through increased attention to, if not outright meddling in, former Soviet republics in Russia's neighborhood. That said," it adds, "the only realistic attitude is to judge Mr. Putin by what he does next. He comes to power with an astonishingly scanty record, and his words are notably susceptible to conflicting interpretations."

The editorial sums up: "Russians like to say that the era of romanticism in U.S.-Russian relations is over; many Americans feel the same way. Mr. Putin is likely to turn to Washington for advice, and that's probably just as well for both sides. But [it] remains as true as ever that U.S. interests will be served by Russia's evolution toward a democratic, tolerant society, and harmed by a shift toward authoritarianism."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)