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Western Press Review: Russia Returns To The Spotlight

  • Don Hill



Prague, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia seldom remains long off the agenda of Western press commentary, and today's press brings a flurry of opinion articles on issues involving Russia.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Russia has no choice

In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Urban writes from Moscow, saying that the State Duma's ratification of the START Two nuclear disarmament treaty is preordained and inevitable. As he puts it: "In Western capitals, officials responded to the news [of likely Duma approval] with excited talk of a new line of cooperation as well as a first test of authority for President-elect Vladimir Putin. [It is evident] on closer examination, however, that the imminent ratification of START Two in no way deviates from the previous foreign policy adopted by the Russians. The fact of the matter is [that Russia] has no choice. The intercontinental missiles covered by the terms of the treaty are so out-of-date that they would have to be scrapped anyway in the near future [and] the Russian government does not have the money to pay for their replacements."

WASHINGTON POST: There is a notable softening of hard line rhetoric

Washington Post Moscow correspondent Daniel Williams writes in an analysis today that there is other evidence that Russia genuinely is softening some of its militaristic attitude. In Williams's words: "Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that Russia actively is seeking a political settlement to the war in Chechnya. His remarks capped a week of notable softening by the government of its hard-line rhetoric on the separatists region."

The change began, the analysis says, after the Council of Europe began steps to suspend Russia from membership. Williams says that it precedes Putin's first visit to the West, scheduled for next week. Williams writes that some Russians believe that the talk is merely empty publicity, others that military losses in Chechnya have propelled Putin's government to seek a way out.

WASHINGTON POST: The former KGB agent can hope to learn the ropes from Blair

A veteran Washington Post foreign affairs columnist, Jim Hoagland, interviewed British Prime Minister Tony Blair this week. Hoagland offers the opinion that a special relationship is developing between Blair and Putin. Here is an excerpt from Hoagland's column: "It is accepted -- in Moscow -- that Putin deliberately has chosen Britain, and Blair, as special interlocutors as he begins to feel his way in international politics. Putin is 47, the age Blair reaches on May 6. Both intend to be in power for some time to come. And their personal styles seem to mesh."

Hoagland also says: "I sensed from our conversation that Blair sees some of his own discipline and focus in Putin, who was host to Blair in Saint Petersburg this winter. The former KGB agent can hope to learn the ropes from the forceful and firmly entrenched Briton as they both prepare for the [G-7 plus Russia] summit in Okinawa this summer."

DIE WELT: Oskarovich Gref is currently the highest-ranking political and economic strategist for Putin

Another analysis from Moscow, this one by German commentator Jens Hartmann, writing in Die Welt, purports to identify not a British leader but an ethnic German political strategist and image-maker named Oskarovich Gref as an influential tutor for Putin. Hartmann writes that Gref, in Hartmann's words, "is currently the highest-ranking political and economic strategist for [Putin, and] is the man charged for working out a 10-year strategy for the president, assisted by 30 employees and 200 economics advisers." Hartmann says that Putin and Gref have known each other now for a decade, as the analyst puts it, "having first met in Saint Petersburg -- then called Leningrad -- at the university."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Putin will discover that Ukrainians are eager to see Mr. Yeltsin's legacy of democracy

The Wall Street Journal Europe and the International Herald Tribune open their opinion columns today to prominent contributors, the first paper to Leonid Kuchma, president of Ukraine; and the second to David Russell-Johnston, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

First, Kuchma. Ahead of a next week's meeting in Kyiv with Putin, Kuchma praises Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and expresses hope for continued Russian progress toward democracy. In Kuchma's words: "When President Putin visits Kyiv, he will discover that Ukrainians are eager to see Mr. Yeltsin's legacy of democracy continue into the 21st century. This is essential for the nations of Southern and Eastern Europe that are so profoundly affected by Russian policy. It is even more essential for the Russian people, who suffered so much under totalitarianism during the 20th century. Now, as it embarks upon a democratic course, Russia deserves to take its rightful place among the nations of Europe. Continued Russian progress toward the rule of law and a free market economy are obviously in Ukraine's best interests."

But Kuchma also cautions that Russia's conduct in Chechnya remains a major issue. He writes: "We are closely monitoring the way Russia is handling the challenges to its integrity that stem from its counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya. We believe terrorism is a major threat to all nations in the region, and we are deeply concerned about the massive death toll among Chechnya's civilian population. We hope for a solution that will end the bloodshed swiftly."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: There is no justification for Russia's violations of the rules it has committed itself to respect

The Council of Europe's Russell-Johnston, writing in the International Herald Tribune, comes down more forcefully on Russia over Chechnya. He writes this: "Human rights are not abstract. Their violations even less so. In Chechnya, since the beginning of the hostilities, the civilian population has suffered from the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Russian troops. Grozny, a city of the size of Edinburgh, has been reduced to rubble. There is evidence of torture, rape and murder."

He writes also: "Certainly, the Chechen fighters have been responsible for many, often most brutal human rights violations themselves. The absence of any unequivocal condemnation of such abuses and of effective action to prevent them in future casts serious doubt on whether the Chechen leadership can be considered as a serious interlocutor in the search for a political solution. Yet," Russell-Johnston continues, Russia is a civilized European state, a member of the Council of Europe, and as such expected and obliged to abide by higher standards of conduct. No acts of its adversary, brutal as they may be, can serve as a justification for its own violations of the rules it has committed itself to respect."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: To fret about Russia's feelings is to substitute psychoanalysis for politics

On its own behalf, the Wall Street Journal Europe says in an editorial that a summit this week of the Council of Baltic Sea States inevitably focused on Chechnya also, but the newspaper scolds the national leaders for what it calls "Hanseatic dreaming" and for failing to address the topic realistically. The editorial says in part: "As with the Chechens, the Baltic states cannot ignore the Russian Bear. They're right to wonder where that creature may seek its next meal." It says: "Though Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen insisted that normal relations between Russia and Europe required that the Chechnya question be resolved, little else was heard on the subject."

The newspaper continues: "All fine and good. If the Baltics want to resurrect the memory of the prosperous, seafaring Hanseatic trading league as a model for their future, that's one medieval notion we'll happily endorse. But all that Hanseatic dreaming will come to nothing if it isn't built on a solid security framework." Regarding soft-pedaling on Chechnya, the editorial says: "To fret about Russia's feelings is to substitute psychoanalysis for politics."

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