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Western Press Review: Berezovsky, The Middle East

  • Alexandra Poolos

Prague, 18 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press focuses today on topics ranging from the resignation from the Duma of a powerful Russian tycoon to the Middle East peace talks.

The Western press today questioned the impact of the surprise resignation from the Duma of oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky said yesterday he will give up his seat in parliament because he does not want to side with his fellow oligarchs against President Vladimir Putin while enjoying immunity from prosecution that they lack. He also said he opposes Putin's plan to assert stricter federal control over the regions, saying he does not want to take part in the imposition of authoritarian rule in Russia.


Journalist Patrick Cockburn writes in the British daily Independent that the resignation comes as Putin widens his offensive against the business elite who, in the commentator's words, "have made great fortunes through taking over the assets of the Soviet state for knock-down prices over the past ten years."

Cockburn calls Berezovsky's motives for resigning "perplexing." He notes that the Russian tycoon has been closely tied to the Kremlin and used the media outlets he controls, such as ORT television to support Putin in the presidential election last March. Cockburn also writes that Berezovsky is the most important member of the supporters of former president Boris Yeltsin, known as the "Family."

Cockburn writes that many in Russia will question the real reasons behind Berezovsky's resignation. As he puts it: "Most Russians will find it hard to take seriously Mr. Berezovsky's presentation of himself as a martyr in the cause of political and religious liberty. He is considered to be the apotheosis of the businessmen who used their connections to make money under Yeltsin."

And Cockburn cautions that Putin may be limiting his own base of power by taking on Russia's oligarchs. He says: "In distancing himself from the people who brought him to power, Mr. Putin is relying largely on the KGB security service, in which he was a career officer. This is quite a narrow base against the multitude of enemies the president is now making -- including the powerful provincial governors."

New York Times:

In an analysis, Michael Wines writes in the New York Times today that Berezovsky's resignation was the "bluntest attack yet by a major figure on the popular Mr. Putin, who has taken dead aim at Russia's business oligarchy and its 89 regional governors in an effort to reimpose Kremlin control over an almost feral political structure."

Wines writes that the move carries significant risk for Berezovsky, who he calls "a roundly unpopular public figure and one of the very tycoons Mr. Putin's men are sizing up." He writes: "By resigning from parliament's lower house, the Duma, he will surrender his immunity to criminal prosecution just as the government is threatening criminal action against other tycoons -- and after prosecutors questioned him on Friday in a criminal inquiry involving the Russian airline Aeroflot."

Wines says that Berezovsky's calls for a new anti-Kremlin movement have scant chance of quick success in Russia. Wines says that Berezovsky is "an unlikely spokesman for democracy" and that it is difficult to believe his stated motives. "But he also," Wines adds, "sounded like an angry and betrayed man, one who blasted the Kremlin's attacks on his fellow tycoons as nothing more than a bald attempt to usurp power for itself."

Financial Times:

In today's Financial Times, reporters Charles Clover and Arkady Ostrovsky write that "Berezovsky's tirade against the Kremlin on Monday and his threat to resign as parliamentary deputy are a signal to the Kremlin that the former powers behind the throne, such as Mr. Berezovsky, are nervous."

"The country's most powerful business baron," they write, "no longer seems to have the same access to the Kremlin's inner chambers he enjoyed under Mr. Yeltsin's rule."

Clover and Ostrovsky write that Putin is trying to change the whole relationship between the state and the elites. They say no one knows what this new relationship will look like.

New York Times:

Western papers also comment on Russian President Vladimir Putin's current visit to China. In the New York Times, Craig Smith writes that Putin's Asian tour is intended to revive Russia's faded diplomatic role in the region and "build what could become a Chinese-Russian axis to counter American influence."

Smith says Russian and Chinese opposition to U.S. plans for a national missile defense system have merely "accelerated" a "strategic partnership" between the two countries.

But Smith also says that despite the increasingly anti-American cast of Russia and China, the two countries cannot depend solely on each other. "Mr. Putin," he says, "hopes to change this, though it will not happen overnight. Russia's troubled economy presents a far less attractive market for China than the United States, Europe and Japan, and Russian goods cannot compete in China against domestically manufactured products or high technology imports from Japan and the West. About the only things Russia can offer China besides arms are commodities like natural gas."

Turning to the United States, the New York Times runs an editorial criticizing the foreign aid bill passed in the U.S. House last week. The paper says the bill is, in its words, "seriously flawed and has rightly invited a veto threat from President Clinton. The basic problem is that the overall allocation is far too low to meet American foreign policy objectives." The editorial says that both the House bill and the Senate version allot nearly $2 billion less than the White House requested.

The Times says that the bill makes severe cuts in funding for multinational development banks, which make basic infrastructure loans to the poorest countries. It says it also fails to finance international women's health programs adequately, and reduces funding for peacekeeping and nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

In particular, the editorial faults the U.S. foreign aid bill for its anti-abortion requirements. In the words of the Times: "The House bill contains an unacceptable provision that would deny American assistance to any foreign organization that uses its own money to provide abortions or engages in political debate to change abortion laws. Under longstanding law, no United States government funds may be used to pay for abortions or to lobby on abortion policy in other countries. Last year Congress went further barring groups from using other funds to engage in hose activities. The Clinton administration accepted a one-year restriction as part of a deal with Congressional Republicans to pay back dues owed to the Untied Nations."

The New York Times sums up: "This anti-democratic rule banning abortion advocacy should now be abandoned."

Finally, the Western press continued to struggle today with the media blackout around the Middle East peace negotiations at Camp David.

Washington Post:

The Washington Post says that the lack of information has made it very difficult to gauge the progress of talks between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But the paper says the lack of information may also indicate that things are going well.

As the editorial puts it: "First, the parties have been talking for a week now -- a sign that there is at least some common ground to explore. Second, the effectiveness of the media blackout strongly implies that neither party is frustrated enough at the talks to break it. Finally, President Clinton has said that the talks, though tough going, have yielded 'some progress.' These signs are positive, but they don't alone herald a deal."

The Post says there will be grave consequences if the two sides fail to reach an understanding: "Arafat has promised to declare a Palestinian state in September. Doing so in the absence of a negotiated framework would provoke a serious and potentially violent confrontation. At the very least, the Israelis and Palestinians must work out arrangements in which the declaration of the state can be accomplished peacefully."

Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal Europe's editorial takes a sarcastic tone. It writes that in many ways, Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton are like children: "So there's Yasser, and there's Ehud, and there's Bill, and they're like, horsing around, making funny faces, playing little games of 'no, you go first' -- just like kids at camp, which is after all, where they are right now."

The paper says that the Middle East peace talks are born from a sense of hope that the negotiations will ultimately overcome years of conflict between the two sides. But these "good feelings," the editorial says, may not translate into "good policy."

"As we said, it's all very nice. Would that we too could live in a world where hope always triumphs over experience. But we cannot, nor can people whom a Middle East peace deal directly affects. Jewish settlers on the West Bank have not been invited with Prime Minister Barak to make nice with their stone-throwing Palestinian neighbors. The only peace they can hope for is one based on strategic facts, not good feelings. But good feelings are what's driving the present efforts at an accord. And there's little reason to hope that Mr. Barak's good feelings will be shared by his fellow Israelis, as last week's fracturing of his coalition government attests."

New York Times:

Leah Rabin, the widow of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in a commentary in today's New York Times, appeals directly to Barak and Arafat to reach a solution.

To Barak, she says that "again Israel has hope." She says that Barak is carrying on the work of her husband, who first began negotiations with Arafat and who was assassinated not only to stop his work but "to deter other leaders from traversing the road to peace."

She writes to Arafat that she remembers him coming to mourn her husband's death with her and her family: "You mourned with me and with Israel. You have the power to bring the mourning to a close, to fulfill the dream of your nation and of mine. ... Do not let the courage I know you possess or your will to end the suffering of your people be diminished. ... Do not miss this opportunity."