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Western Press Review: Focus Remains On Putin

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 30 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary remains heavily focused on Russia's newly-elected president, Vladimir Putin. Analysts assess Putin's record and public statements for clues to his likely future policies. There is also some comment today on recent developments in the Middle East peace process and on yesterday's decision by the multilateral oil cartel known as OPEC to lower the world price of crude oil.

NEW YORK TIMES: The great love for Putin will inevitably end in great hatred

Two Russian writers discuss Putin in commentaries appearing in Western dailies today. Writing from Moscow for the New York Times, author Vladimir Voinovich says: "Russians have endowed [Putin] with qualities that were the products of imagination and wishful thinking and were often incompatible. Suddenly they came to believe he could do anything -- wipe out all the Chechen rebels and bring peace, find work for the unemployed, raise teachers' salaries, double pensions, stop crime and in no time lead the entire country to prosperity."

He comments: "The Russian people's love for their new president is great but will hardly be long-lasting. The greater it is today, the deeper will the disenchantment be tomorrow. Once they realize that he is only a human being, people will not be angry at themselves, but at him because he can't simultaneously wage war in Chechnya, increase teachers' salaries and pensioners' benefits, feed everyone, rebuild the ruined Chechen cities, pay off the country's international debts, keep the ruble from falling and create a new Hollywood."

Voinovich also says that Putin, in his words, "has one other foe that will be harder to deal with than the Chechen rebels -- corruption." He argues that "Corrupt people will remind him that he came to power with their help." And he concludes: "Many people predict [that Putin] will be a strong president. I think he has almost no chance of that. He faces problems that exceed the powers of a Jefferson, whose time has yet to come in Russia, or of a Stalin, whose time has come and gone. This great love will inevitably end in great hatred, just as it did with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin."

TIMES: A period of stronger government could create the conditions for an economic revival

In the Times of Britain today, columnist Anatole Kaletsky is more optimistic about Putin. While he has strong doubts about the new president's allegiance to democratic values, Kaletsky says Putin's election offers what he calls "a capital opportunity" for Russia's economy.

Kaletsky writes: "The very indifference to genuine democracy in the manner of Mr. Putin's appointment and confirmation, suggests the possibility that Russia will now experience one of its regular swings from near-anarchy to strong government. And as it happens," he goes on, "a period of stronger government, provided it is aimed at curbing political abuses rather than controlling the market system, could create the conditions for a Russian economic revival, for which many of the other requirements are in place."

The commentator argues further: "If [Putin] can create a government that is strong enough to curb the political power of the robber barons [that is, the business oligarchs], introduce proper property laws and an enforceable tax system, he can transform the economic incentives facing Russia's growing capitalist class." That would mean, he says, that "constructive economic activity and genuine enterprise could gradually become more profitable than the mutually destructive struggle over the ownership and control of assets that typified the Yeltsin years."

Kaletsky concludes: "Russia could, in short, become something resembling a genuine, if backward, capitalist state. Whether it will ever become a genuine democracy is another matter."

ATLANTA CONSTITUTION: Putin is no Marxist-Leninist throwback

In an editorial today, the regional U.S. newspaper Atlanta Constitution (from the state of Georgia) writes: "Very much in character for a former KGB spy, Vladimir Putin managed to win the 11-man contest for Russia's presidency without revealing a lot about his personality or program. That is troubling. So too," the paper continues, "was the low road the state-run TV networks took in promoting Putin's candidacy, mostly blacking out coverage of his rivals and sinking to anti-Semitic slurs against one of them. The election may have been reasonably fair; the campaign wasn't."

The editorial goes on to find consolation in some of Putin's attributes: "He is sober, focused and fit, the antithesis of Boris Yeltsin. To his credit [also], Putin seems serious about establishing the rule of law, pushing for economic reform and fighting graft." The paper also raises the issue of Russia's inveterate corruption, arguing that Putin could prove to be "the right antidote for [the country's] rampaging corruption, which costs the country an estimated $20 billion a year, about the size of its 1999 federal budget."

The Atlanta Constitution sees some hope as well in Putin's expressed desire to bolster the power of the Russian state. It writes: "He has made it clear he plans to strengthen the courts, overhaul the tax system and fight crime in order to improve Russia's business climate and make it attractive to foreign investors." The paper concludes: "[Putin] is no Marxist-Leninist throwback."

NEW YORK TIMES: Unlike Syria, Israel and the Palestinians show a growing willingness to compromise

Turning to the Middle East, two U.S. dailies today comment on the recent breakdown in peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. In an editorial, the New York Times writes: "The cause of [the present] impasse is Syria's president, Hafez al-Assad, who refused to show any flexibility when he met with [U.S. President Bill] Clinton in Geneva last Sunday. He continues to insist, unreasonably, that Israel withdraw from the entire Golan Heights [it occupied in 1967] down to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee before he will even discuss issues vital to Israel's security."

The editorial continues: "Fortunately, the negotiating breakdown with Syria has not infected Israel's talks with the Palestinians, which are moving ahead slowly. Both sides show a growing willingness to compromise, and the outlines of a possible agreement are visible. It would involve Israel handing over much of the West Bank and accepting some form of Palestinian statehood."

The New York Times sums up: "It is essential that neither [Israeli] Prime Minister Ehud Barak nor the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, be distracted by Assad's intransigence. The next building block of a durable Middle East peace," it says, "is a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. For now, peace with Syria may not be possible."

WASHINGTON POST: President Assad's policy threaten to crack

In the Washington Post, a commentary by Howard Schneider says that "President Assad's long quest to reclaim the Golan Heights may be increasingly hard to sustain as the pillars of his policy threaten to crack in the fast-changing Middle East." Writing from Beirut, Schneider argues: "After three decades of Syrian military and political policies aimed at reclaiming the occupied territory, important elements of Assad's strategy may now be eroding: from Syria's dominance of Lebanon, to the use of military proxies to threaten Israel's northern border, to an assumption that the rest of the Arab world will indefinitely wait for Syrian steadfastness to produce results."

He also says: "Other Arab leaders are signaling that they want the situation resolved, most recently at a foreign ministers' conference in Beirut. Holding the conference in Lebanon was interpreted here as support for this country's quandary of being the battleground in a struggle between Israel, with occupying forces in southern Lebanon, and Syria, working through Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla forces, whom it supports and influences."

Schneider sums up: "Some diplomats and analysts argue that the aging ruler eventually will reach a deal with Israel. Assad's history, others contend, argues otherwise: Even as he potentially loses leverage over the situation, accepting anything less than return of the Golan to the boundaries before the 1967 war would be seen as a moral and political failure, upending a main aim of his career."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The U.S. has been so absorbed by short-term domestic political considerations that it has lost sight of its longer-term interests

Britain's Financial Times carries a commentary by Robert Corzine and Roula Khalaf on yesterday's decision by OPEC to increase oil production. They write: "On the face of it, [the] agreement of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to rein back the price of oil by increasing output was a triumph for the U.S. A high-profile campaign by Bill Richardson, the U.S. energy secretary, [ended] in clear victory. But [the] outcome could not only leave a bitter taste in the wider Arab world, but also undermine U.S. influence in the Gulf. In a region where anti-American feelings run high and Arab governments are vulnerable to accusations that they act as U.S. puppets, Mr. Richardson has taken a risk."

The commentary goes on to say: "Iran's refusal to sign the accord now means that it and Iraq -- both viewed as 'rogue' states by the U.S. -- are outside OPEC's production quota framework, albeit for different reasons and perhaps only temporarily. For those who believe that one of Washington's unwritten policy aims in the Middle East is to keep OPEC divided, this appears to add to U.S. reasons for pleasure at the outcome."

"But," the analysts ask, "has the U.S. been so absorbed by short-term domestic political considerations that it has lost sight of its longer-term interests in the Middle East? [Several analysts argue] that OPEC would probably have acted to raise output even if there had been no U.S. diplomatic campaign directed at it to do so." Their commentary concludes: "The U.S. clearly gave priority to its domestic political agenda in the lead-up to the OPEC meeting. But if OPEC members do likewise in future, its actions could have unwelcome long-term consequences."

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