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Western Press Review: Putin Assessed; Sierra Leone And The UN

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western press commentators today and over the weekend assess Vladimir Putin's first official week as Russia's president -- particularly, his government's raid on the country's chief independent media group. There is also continuing comment on the United Nations' failure to keep the peace in the West African nation of Sierra Leone and what it means for similar future efforts on the continent.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Putin has offered some hard-to-miss clues

In an editorial headed "Vladimir Bonaparte," the Wall Street Journal Europe says that Putin's "knack for silence and secrecy elevated him to the highest ranks of the KGB. His only campaigning for the presidency was the battle waged in Chechnya. His economic program remains rumored but unannounced. One suspects that he believes, with Napoleon Bonaparte, that success 'is the greatest orator in the world.'"

"But," the editorial asks, "just what does Mr. Putin believe constitutes success?" "The president's first official week in office," it says, "offered some hard-to-miss clues. On Thursday, police toting submachine guns and wearing black masks raided the Moscow offices of Russia's most powerful independent media company [Media-Most], run by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Mr. Gusinsky's NTV television [the only independent national TV channel] was practically alone among the Russian media in its criticism of Vladimir Putin. Even Mr. Gusinsky's enemies expressed surprise at the heavy-handed manner in which police stormed the building."

The editorial adds: "Mr. Putin is also clamping down on Russia's 89 regions, whose governors have increasingly asserted their independence from central control since the collapse of communism a decade ago. In a decree Saturday, he set up seven federal districts to oversee the regions." The point of the decrees, the paper argues, "was to put the regional czars on notice. There are reports that Mr. Putin has much more far-reaching changes in mind, including [giving himself the power] to dismiss regional governors."

POLITIKEN: The war in Chechnya has had a negative effect on freedom of the press in Russia.

In Denmark, the daily Politiken writes in an editorial: "The truth is that the Kremlin suppresses any form of overt press criticism at home, and that any criticism that has come from the West [about the continuing war in Chechnya] has had no effect on Russia's leaders." It goes on: "The West has given Putin the benefit of the doubt, [hoping] that as an elected leader he will try to find a political solution to the conflict. But it looks as though he is about to resort to more violence [in Chechnya] in order to increase support for himself among a frustrated people."

"In addition," the editorial argues, "Putin shows no remorse in encouraging political censorship at home. It is obvious," the paper concludes, "that the war in Chechnya has had a negative effect on freedom of the press in Russia. Whether Putin will use the same method to muzzle the press over other forms of criticism depends [not only on him, but also on the reaction of] the outside world."

WASHINGTON POST: The raid on Media-Most does nothing to allay the skeptics' fears

Over the weekend (May 13), the Washington Post called the police raid on Media-Most "a rotten start for Mr. Putin." The paper wrote in an editorial: "[Mr.] Putin was sworn in on May 7 having promised to establish a 'dictatorship of law' in Russia. Four days later, his government gave an exhibition of what that phrase might mean insofar as it applies to freedom of the press."

The editorial went on to say: "Mr. Putin tried to distance himself from the raid. His press agency said that 'the president is firmly convinced that freedom of speech and freedom of the mass media are immutable values.' But this isn't the first time Mr. Putin has given reason to question his faith in such values," the editorial added. "To Mr. Putin, Andrei Babitsky -- the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter who broadcast critical stories about Russian forces in Chechnya and then was abducted by them -- was [in Putin's words] 'working directly for the enemy.' While Mr. Putin was still acting president, two newspapers, Kommersant Daily and Novaya gazeta, received formal Kremlin warnings for publishing interviews with the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov."

The paper concluded: "The Clinton administration thus far has found much to like in Russia's new president, despite his KGB past and his conduct of the brutal war in Chechnya. Many supporters of democracy in Russia have found more reason for skepticism. The raid on Media-Most does nothing to allay the skeptics' fears."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Western leaders have abandoned the moral precepts they proclaimed less than a year earlier

In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate today, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger says that Western leaders "have showered [Putin] with accolades testifying to his intelligence and commitment to reform, and, somewhat condescendingly, as a 'quick learner.' In the process," Kissinger writes, "they have abandoned the moral precepts they proclaimed less than a year earlier."

He argues: "[Last year,] they justified their Kosovo policy as a new moral dispensation that would no longer ignore domestic repression as an internal matter. But when, six months later, Chechnya produced an almost precise replica of Kosovo with even higher civilian casualties, they changed their tune. The 'freedom fighters' of Kosovo were transformed into 'rebels' in Chechnya. President Clinton specifically approved Russia's right 'to oppose violent Chechen rebels.'"

Kissinger goes on: "The West has a stake in a peaceful and democratic Russia that would contribute to a more stable international order. And Russia is clearly in a historic transition. But history, culture and geography have left a legacy that cannot be removed by 'dialogue' for its own sake." He concludes: "While Putin is concentrating on the modernization of Russia -- which has its own momentum -- [the West's] challenge is to deal with its international consequences. And, in what is left of the Clinton administration, the best that can be achieved in this respect is to start, rather than conclude, a dialogue."

NEW YORK TIMES: The UN seems to survive only by forgetting

Turning to Sierra Leone, a commentary in the New York Times by writer Michael Ignatieff says that, "while a demoralized UN force [awaits] the rebel advance on the capital Freetown, the UN system's astounding inability to learn from past mistakes is on display once again." He writes: "As in Rwanda, member countries supplied troops without the capacity to defend themselves. As in Somalia, forces have been sucked into a civil war without the means and the will to prevail. Once again, peacekeepers have been taken hostage. In 1995, the Bosnian Serbs at least chained them to buildings in full view of cameras. In Sierra Leone, the UN can't even find them. And as if that were not enough, UN forces have made common cause with a vicious local militia that it was supposed to disarm."

"The UN seems to survive only by forgetting," the commentator continues. "An incorrigible moral narcissism about its own good intentions makes it unable to recognize that its central ideal and instrument -- peacekeeping -- is so flawed that it must be abandoned altogether. The idea of interposing soldiers in blue berets and side arms between two sides had some uses in the inter-state wars of the cold war era. It has bankrupted itself in the civil wars since. Traditional peacekeeping only works when states at war want peace. It only works when peacekeepers maintain neutrality."

Ignatieff concludes: "Wars like Sierra Leone's are about the destruction of states and the creation of new forms of ethnic-majority tyranny, backed by ethnic cleansing. To be neutral here is to be an accomplice in crime. To keep the peace here is to ratify the conquests of evil. It is time to bury peacekeeping before it buries the UN"

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: You cannot keep the peace until you have first restored it

For novelist Frederick Forsyth, Sierra Leone and previous UN debacles mean that it is time, in his words, to "send in the mercenaries." In a commentary for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Forsyth writes: "You cannot keep the peace until you have first restored it -- the Bosnia fiasco is a timely reminder. But that means combat, and though UN troops may defend themselves, they are not mandated to aggressive fighting." Nor, he argues, are the U.S. and other Western nations -- apart perhaps from Britain and France -- likely to send in their soldiers to keep the peace.

So, says Forsyth, into this vacuum steps the professional mercenary. "There is nothing strange or new about this paid warrior," he argues. "From Sparta and Athens, through ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, via the condottiere of Renaissance Italy to the 19th century, the soldier-for-hire graced a perfectly honorable profession."

He continues: "Two professional mercenary outfits were called in to end the previous round of bleeding horror in Sierra Leone. One of these, since closed down, rejoiced in its delightfully euphemistic name, Executive Outcomes; it was South African-led. The other, Sandline, which prefers the title 'private military company,' is mainly British and headed by Colonel Tim Spicer, formerly of the Scots Guards."

Forsyth adds: "When, a year or so ago, these groups defeated the drug-crazed and limb-amputating rebels and arrested and handed over to justice the psychopathic leader Foday Sankoh, the Caucasian soldiers became heroes, lionized by a grateful population. Now the diplomats have released Mr. Sankoh, he is back as homicidal as ever, and the bloodbath has resumed. So to whom are we doing favors by being so queasy?" he asks.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Tackling Africa's crisis will require a global initiative

Examining wider African problems in Britain's Financial Times, Michael Holman and Tony Hawkins say that "poverty is the background to Africa's unending round of disasters." They write: "Forty years after the end of colonial rule, [Africa's] crisis is deeper and its potential consequences wider than [ever] before. Wracked by war and sapped by disease, burdened by a traumatic past and failing to get to grips with the economic and technological revolutions that are reshaping the global community, Africa is slipping out of the control of the leaders who claim to govern it, and beyond the reach of the international institutions and coalitions that seek to rescue it."

The commentators go on: "[Poverty] makes Africans more vulnerable to war and disease. And war and disease constantly thwart Africans' efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. [This] is a vicious cycle that Africa and [aid] donors have failed to break." They add: "It is 20 years since the World Bank launched its structural adjustment policy, and just over 10 since it published a seminal report titled 'From Crisis to Sustainable Growth' and rang the alarm bell: Unless Africa's economies grew by at least 4 to 5 percent annually, the alternative was 'too ghastly to contemplate.'"

They conclude: "Tackling Africa's crisis will require a global initiative, as first advocated by the [World] Bank in 1981. But an essential first step is an end to the fiction that recovery is under way, recognizing the mistakes of the donors as well as the failures of the leaders of a fragile continent on the verge of collapse."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)