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Western Press Review: More Putin Comments, Kosovo Assessed

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 29 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For the third consecutive day, there is much comment in the Western press on the implications of Vladimir Putin's election Sunday as Russia's president. The key question for most analysts is whether Putin will continue to keep Russia on the track of democratic free-market reforms, and there is no consensus among them on the answer. Today's commentary also includes more assessments of Kosovo's situation a year after the NATO air campaign.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Putin appears to be beholden to no special interests

The Los Angeles Times writes of Putin in an editorial: "The new president owes much of his public standing to his bloody but popular campaign against Chechnya, where his determined assaults earned him the image of a leader who can get things done. Tough leaders have been a mark of Soviet and Russian regimes over the past century."

The paper goes on: "Putin's views on economic reform are sketchy, but during the election campaign he spoke of a 'civilized' market that can bring benefits to the masses, called for tax reform and spoke of the need to integrate Russia into the world economy." Unlike his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the editorial says, "Putin appears to be beholden to no special interests. Nor has he been tarnished by corruption scandals."

It sums up: "The new president's early achievements will be judged by the government he assembles and the quality of his advisers. To his advantage, unlike Yeltsin, Putin will be working with a parliament controlled by center-right members of parliament, not Communists. The Putin era begins with popular support based on a free vote. This is an opportunity the former spymaster must not waste."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Putin is not interested in human rights or due process

In the same paper, a commentary by Rachel Denbar -- former head of the monitoring group Human Rights Watch's Moscow office -- is far tougher on the new president. She writes: "[Under Putin,] the Russian army has slaughtered and maimed thousands of civilians in bombing and shelling. [Its] forces have [summarily executed at least 122 people,] looted civilians' homes, arrested thousands of Chechen men and tortured untold numbers of those whom they have detained in special 'filtration camps.'"

Her commentary continues: "This is an ominous indication of what the rest of Putin's tough law-and-order agenda for Russia may mean. He is not interested in human rights or due process. He is willing to vilify non-Russian citizens to achieve his goals. A former KGB agent, he reaches readily for the tools of what Russians call 'the power ministries' -- defense, interior, the intelligence agencies -- to solve problems and carry out policy."

Denbar castigates Western leaders for what she believes has been their inadequate public criticism of Putin's human-rights failures, and asks: "What did the West fight the Cold War for? Did it spend those many long years tussling over the fate of individual dissidents [just] to see the Russians commit war crimes against innocent civilians, and look away?" She concludes: "[Putin] wants very badly to sit at the table with the major Western powers. But a seat at that table must be earned. Leaders who preside over gross violations of human rights shouldn't get one. The time for making that clear to President Putin is right now."

WASHINGTON POST: Putin faces a fundamental and unavoidable choice

In the Washington Post today, a commentary by U.S. Russian specialist Leon Aron says that Putin, in his words, "faces a fundamental and unavoidable choice -- he must choose between alternative means of bringing 'order' and normalcy to Russia."

Aron writes: "Russian history is replete with attempts -- often lasting for decades -- to achieve 'order' and "unity" by expanding the state's control over society and retrieving the instruments of authoritarian coercion and mobilization, which have been significantly dulled under Yeltsin. Moreover, there is a strong national tradition of longing -- when everything else fails -- for the honest policeman, smart, energetic and incorruptible."

He adds: "Given his KGB background and the national tradition, Putin's initial impulse is almost certain to be in the direction of a police renaissance." The commentator warns, however, that "[Putin] should beware of misinterpreting his mandate. [Russians] are capable of holding seemingly contradictory views. [They] want order but not a dictatorship, nor even creeping authoritarianism. The ability to see the difference and maneuver accordingly will be a test of Putin's political instinct and statesmanship."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Hopes for significant improvement must be dim

An editorial in Britain's Financial Times calls Putin's election the start of "a journey into the unknown." The paper writes: "Mr. Putin is the elected tsar of a paper empire. The challenge that Russia confronts can be defined by what he is -- and is not -- able to do: he can rule his country by decree, but cannot be confident of obedience; he can devastate Chechnya, but cannot pay his country's doctors. A civilized country has a law-governed and effective state. Russia is the antithesis."

The paper goes on: "Mr. Putin is no Yeltsin. But what is he? And, whatever he is, can he hope to rectify a disarray that is more the fruit of 80 years of communism than of 10 years of failed reform?" It argues further: "The president's intentions and capacities are unknown. What is clear is that he is either the lucky survivor of Mr. Yeltsin's game of musical ministerial chairs or the beneficiary of a cynical plot to preserve the elite's pre-eminence by exploiting an 'anti-terrorist' war."

"Given this," the Financial Times concludes, "hopes for significant improvement must be dim. Already, [business tycoon] Boris Berezovsky, among the most successful exploiters of post-communist chaos, has warned that the influence of what he calls 'big capital' can only grow further in Putin's Russia. If so, the chances of turning Russia into a country governed by law, with a [currency-based] economy, an effective public service and a functioning federalism must be slim."

NEW YORK TIMES: It is time we stopped making Russia the receptacle of either our dreams or our fears

A quite different assessment of Putin is given in a New York Times commentary by Jack Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. He writes: "The important question about Mr. Putin is whether he is capable of keeping Russia on the democratic track and devoted to doing so." Matlock says there are what he calls "well-founded" reasons for believing so.

To support his argument, the commentator cites Putin's public condemnation of communism as "a blind alley" and warning against the "restoration of an official state ideology." Matlock also says that Putin's "rhetoric on democracy has been unequivocal." He acknowledges that "the former KGB official [relies] on former agency colleagues enough to raise questions," while "most worrisome [about Putin] is the brutality of the war in Chechnya."

But he remains optimistic about Russia's future under Putin, saying: "It is time we [in the West] stopped making Russia the receptacle of either our dreams or our fears. We should congratulate the people on a peaceful and orderly transfer of power [to Putin]."

WASHINGTON POST: It would be wrong to conclude the NATO campaign was a mistake

Two commentaries in the Washington Post offer differing assessments of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia, begun a year ago. Calling the campaign a "success," analysts Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon say that "the true test [was whether] lives were saved." They write: "Just because Kosovo is a long way from being the multi-ethnic, democratic and secure place many had hoped for, it would be wrong to conclude the NATO campaign was a mistake. The problems are nothing compared with what would have happened had NATO not intervened."

"In most instances," their commentary continues, "today's difficulties are the natural consequence of years of conflict between Serbs and Albanians -- capped by [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's massive ethnic cleansing offensive last spring, which forced more than 1.3 million people from their homes, including more than 850,000 from Kosovo itself. Measured by that standard," they argue, "the situation in Kosovo isn't nearly as bad as many are willing to believe."

They sum up: "The situation in Kosovo is about as good as one can expect nine months after a bloody war. It is not a multiethnic or democratic entity, and unlikely to be that for many years to come. But Kosovo today is a vast improvement over what it was a year ago -- a place where throats were slit, women were raped, and a vast population was sent packing across the border."

WASHINGTON POST: NATO's objectives in Kosovo have utterly foundered

"Mistake" is precisely what analysts Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz call the NATO air campaign. Also in the Washington Post, they write: "The United States and its NATO allies won a military victory in Yugoslavia a year ago but, as Kosovo's deteriorating situation attests, it is a hollow triumph." The commentators add: "This was a misguided venture from the start. [NATO's] declared objectives of stabilizing the Balkans and building a multi-ethnic democracy in Kosovo have utterly foundered. Worse, as should have been foreseen, the U.S. and its allies are becoming stuck in a geopolitical quagmire."

Layne and Schwarz go on to say: "This unfortunate outcome clearly was inevitable. [In] Kosovo, there were no good guys. Over the centuries, relations between Serbs and ethnic Albanians have been marked by reciprocal repression and revenge." They add: "The more immediate causes of the violence that prompted NATO to step in were the irreconcilable goals of these two hostile ethnic groups: Ethnic Albanians, the overwhelming majority of Kosovo's population, wanted independence from Yugoslavia, which Serbs, invoking the principle of national sovereignty, refused to accept."

The commentary concludes: "Though the U.S. and its allies accomplished one goal by forcing Belgrade to withdrew its troops from Kosovo last year, we must ask, at what price? The war in the province itself never ended. Despite the presence of U.S. and NATO peacekeepers, once Yugoslav forces left Kosovo the [Kosovo Liberation Army] targeted the province's Serbian and [Romany] populations, a campaign of ethnic cleansing that continues unabated."