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Western Press Review: Putin Inaugurated, N. Ireland, Zimbabwe

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 8 May 2000 RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin's inauguration as Russia's president yesterday evokes several comments in the Western press. Other subjects treated include an apparent step forward in Northern Ireland's peace process and the continuing turmoil in the African nation of Zimbabwe.

WASHINGTON POST: Putin has had trouble blending his tough-guy image with democratic rhetoric

In a news analysis for the Washington Post, correspondent Daniel Williams says that "Putin's style leaves some wondering [who he really is]." Williams writes: "Since taking over as Russia's acting president on New Year's Eve, Vladimir Putin has become the quick-change artist of Russian politics. One day, he's dressed in pilot's garb, flying a fighter jet over Chechnya. The next, he's in a blue-striped sailor's shirt over-nighting on a submarine. Then he's in a judo outfit, tossing opponents around a mat, or in goggles, skiing uncharted trails in the southern mountains."

The commentary goes on: "[Putin's] many guises have given rise to a new kind of Kremlinology in which Russians try to assess the country's direction by analyzing Putin's stunts and ceremonial utterances. The interest arose in part because despite more than four months as acting president, Putin did not outline his plans for key economic and social policies. 'Symbolism has been central to Putin's rule so far,' said political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky. 'But where's the beef? [that is, where is the substance?]"

Williams also says: "Putin has had trouble blending his tough-guy image with democratic rhetoric. In calling for crackdowns on crime and disorder in Russia, he said the country would be ruled under a 'dictatorship of law.' Among liberals, at least, [those] words were alarming." He quotes another Russian analyst [Pavel Felgenhauer, a columnist for the Moscow Times] as saying: 'Some feel that it is more and more probable that Putin's "dictatorship of law" in Russia will in effect simply be a dictatorship, a secret police state in which the whim of Putin and his administration will be law.'"

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: The need for critical reforms hasn't lessened

In an editorial published yesterday, the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor was more optimistic about Putin's prospects. The paper wrote: "Conditions could hardly be more auspicious as Putin begins his formal term. He is a new president -- of a new generation -- with a new legislature that appears as eager as he is to effect change. Russia's economy is growing and the troublesome military campaign in Chechnya -- for now at least -- has quieted." It added: "After years of quarreling between Yeltsin and a [State] Duma controlled by Communists determined to block any change, Russians want strong leadership and they also have displayed a recent impatience to get on with it."

"Now," the paper went on, "it's up to Putin to lead. That means turning this semi-reformed nation into a modern functioning state with a prospering economy. What Putin needs to do is precisely what [Boris] Yeltsin couldn't. He has a critical window of opportunity to be bold and must seize it. The need for critical reforms hasn't lessened; they will be neither easy nor painless."

Among the needed reforms, the paper cited "tax reform, guaranteeing private property, strengthening the rule of law, overhauling entrenched bureaucracies and confronting the power of the oligarchs who enriched themselves in the mass privatizations of the 1990s." It concluded: "There is reason for cautious optimism as Putin takes the oath of office. But this is Russia, after all, whose thousand years of melancholy history overflow with dashed hopes, disastrous economic experiments and brutal repression."

LE MONDE: Attempts to create a market economy in Russia have produced little more than corruption and collusion

In a commentary for the French daily Le Monde, analyst Babette Stern also puts the accent on the need for structural economic reforms in Russia. She says that foreign investors who pulled out during and after the ruble's fall in 1998 will not return "until reforms are effected in the judiciary, in the banking sector, in the bankruptcy law and [not least] in the protection of investments. During the 1998 debacle," she adds, "Russian banks that were able to do so did not hesitate to put their assets in a safe haven, leaving the banking sector on the edge of bankruptcy."

Stern adds; "This kind of behavior underlines the continuing state of incivility that reigns in Russia and, especially, the meager confidence that Russians themselves have in their country." She cites the formula of Russian analyst Sergei Markov, who wrote recently: "Seen from afar Russia appears to be a powerful, muscular Atlas. But the closer you get, the more you realize that this Atlas is really dead." Stern comments: "That formula is not as much as a caricature as it might appear. In 10 years, attempts to create a market economy in Russia have produced little more than the corruption and collusion that have paralyzed the country's economic machinery."

IRISH TIMES: The breakthrough on the arms issue restores the promise that the agreement can be implemented

Turning to Northern Ireland, Dublin's Irish Times today hails the statements made over the weekend by the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, and the British and Irish prime ministers. The paper says they hold "out the best chance yet of fully implementing [the 1998] Belfast [peace] Agreement and fulfilling the democratic wishes of the people as expressed in historic referendums, North and South. [The statements] break new ground," the paper's editorial goes on, "in the political and decommissioning [that is, surrendering of arms] process in Northern Ireland and offer the real prospect that [suspended] institutions can be restored, without loss of honor to unionists or republicans, on the second anniversary of the agreement later this month."

The editorial calls the IRA statement on Saturday "highly significant." It says: "For the first time in the peace process, the republican movement has made the commitment to 'completely and verifiably put arms beyond use.' Furthermore," it adds, "the IRA has also agreed to the regular inspection of a number of its arms dumps by two named third parties who will report to [an independent commission on decommissioning arms]."

"It remains to be seen," the paper continues, "whether this new commitment from the IRA [will] be sufficient for [David] Trimble and [his] Ulster Unionist Party." But it concludes: "The breakthrough on the arms issue restores the promise that the agreement can be implemented from May 22, and the year thereafter. It is now a matter of political judgement what concessions may have to be made to Mr. Trimble to ease his political difficulties [within the Unionist party]."

TIMES: Northern Ireland has woken up to many new dawns which have turned into chill, gray days

The Times of Britain is only slightly less enthusiastic than the Irish Times, writing in its editorial: "Northern Ireland has woken up to many new dawns which have turned into chill, gray days, but this time there seems to be the genuine prospect of a better beginning for the province. The document issued by [Britain's] Tony Blair and [Ireland's] Bertie Ahern and the statement released by the IRA have the potential not merely to trigger the restoration of devolution but to recover the entire machinery of the [1998] Good Friday agreement."

The paper goes on urge Ulster Unionist leader Trimble -- in his word -- to "'tease' a few more details from the IRA [about surrendering its weapons]." It says that "the obsession with words and their underlying meaning has been a constant feature of the [Northern Ireland] peace process," adding: "The term 'disarmament' was discarded long ago in favor of the more neutral notion of 'decommissioning.' It now appears [after the IRA statement] that we are moving from 'decommissioning' to 'deactivation.'"

The editorial sums up: "The dictionary cannot, alone, be asked to frame the political future of Northern Ireland. Encouraging phrases will need to be translated into sealed bunkers. But if the IRA is willing to deactivate its arms, then Mr. Trimble and the Ulster Unionists should stand ready to reactivate devolution for Northern Ireland."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: African leaders have a knack of blaming everyone but themselves

Two comments today on the turbulent southern African nation of Zimbabwe strongly criticize its president, Robert Mugabe. In the Los Angeles Times, analyst George Ayittey says that Mugabe's 20-year rule of the country has changed his image from "hero to despot," while the world --- and particularly the rest of Africa -- "watches in silence."

The commentator goes on: "African leaders have a knack of blaming everyone but themselves for their continent's woes. Last August, they demanded $777 trillion in reparations from western Europe and the Americas for enslaving Africans while colonizing the continent -- an amount that exceeded the total sum of the gross national products of all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Most Africans greeted the demand with a yawn," the commentator adds. "Not because slavery and colonialism did not inflict deep wounds on the continent. Rather, Africa's leaders have overused 'external factors' as convenient alibis to conceal their own failures and abdicate responsibility for their failings."

"Now," Ayittey argues, Mugabe of Zimbabwe "is following the blame-game tradition." He says: "After 20 years of mismanagement and corruption, Zimbabwe's economy is in tatters." As a result, he adds, "Mugabe is now casting about for scapegoats. He angrily rejects any criticism of his government's policies, blaming 'greedy' Western powers, "that monstrous creature" [the International Monetary Fund], the Asian financial crisis and white commercial farmers for his troubles." And, he says, "Mugabe is ruthlessly exploiting the [issue of white-owned land] to fan racial hatred, solidify his vote among landless rural voters, maintain his grip on power. The economic needs of the country are being sacrificed to his desperate search for survival."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: We hope Mandela will speak even more directly of the problem next door

The Wall Street Journal Europe today is no less dismissive of Mugabe. but directs its main criticism at former South African leader Nelson Mandela who, over the weekend, called on people to "pick up rifles to defeat tyrants." Mandela, the paper says, "left little doubt that chief among [the dictators he had in mind is] Mugabe, a one-time fellow African 'liberator' whose 20 years of one-party misrule have culminated in a murderous land-grab against defenseless white landowners -- a land grab that could have spillover effects throughout the continent, South Africa included."

The paper acknowledges that, "given Mr. Mandela's personal political history, it may be understandable that he should speak in terms of armed struggle." But it warns: "Even peaceful protest can carry a heavy cost. [We do] not endorse taking up arms in any cause other than self defense. Nor is it fair to urge protest of any kind on a people who will bear the consequences of any outcry largely alone."

The editorial concludes: "[We hope] that when Mr. Mandela next speaks out, he will forgo veiled references to violence, but speak even more directly of the problem next door. That would shatter for once and all the code of omerta which has for so long kept African leaders silent on the abuses of fellow leaders on the continent whose undemocratic or violent misrule they privately reviled."

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