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Western Press Review: Russia In Spotlight; Germany; Yugoslavia

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 9 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is one of the principal subjects treated today by Western press commentators. A few analysts try to assess the significance of yesterday's bomb explosion in central Moscow, which killed at least eight people, while others are concerned with both President Vladimir Putin's achievements and shortcomings. Commentators also touch again on the recent increase in far-right extremism in eastern Germany and Yugoslavia's coming presidential election.


Two news analyses in British dailies deal with the Moscow bombing, which occurred in a busy pedestrian underpass only a short walk from the Kremlin. In the Financial Times, Charles Clover and Andrew Jack say the lethal explosion raises the prospect of a new wave of terror, similar to the one that took place last August and September and killed some 300 Russians in Moscow and other cities. The analysts note that yesterday's "blast came on the anniversary -- one year ago this week -- of the nomination of Vladimir Putin, now Russia's president, as prime minister. It is also," they say, "a year since an incursion of troops led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel commander, into the neighboring Caucasian republic of Dagestan, which triggered the start of the renewed large-scale conflict with Russia."


In the Times, Giles Whitell writes from Moscow that "the bomb that brought death and chaos to the heart of Moscow was [seen] as a direct challenge to President Putin's drive to impose his authority on the lawless Russia he inherited eight months ago [when he became acting president]." Whitell adds: "While Chechen terrorists were inevitably the main suspects in investigators' minds, the Federal Security Service (FSB) knows Mr. Putin has made other enemies in the year since he was named prime minister. A law he signed this week completed a sweeping clampdown on the 89 regional governors, some of whom -- including the nationalists of Tatarstan in central Russia -- have vowed to cling on by any means available to the autonomy they won under President [Boris] Yeltsin."


Putin's authority is also discussed in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled "Progress and Worry in Russia." The paper writes: "Putin's accomplishments during his first three months in office are [both] staggering and worrisome. He has weakened opposition in the [State] Duma, the lower house of parliament. [He has] restructured the potentially troublesome upper house [and] emasculated the powers of regional leaders. [He has] taken on the despised 'oligarchs' and begun a purge in the powerful military. The Russians," says the paper, "love it -- seven out of 10 approve of his performance -- and Putin's political rivals stand divided."

The editorial continues: "Nearly every step Putin has taken has led to the weakening of political opposition and removal of constitutional checks on his already enormous powers. [In the autumn,] he is expected to propose giving the Kremlin even greater control of the Duma by scrapping elections based on party lists."

The paper sums up: "Putin has accomplished more in months than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, did in years. He may even turn Russia's economy around and cleanse the government of corruption. But, in the process, he is dismembering Russia's pluralistic system, and that is a reason to worry."


The influential French provincial daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace carries an editorial on the "Putin Enigma." The paper says: "It's a year since a senile Boris Yeltsin chose as head of government Vladimir Putin, an entirely unknown man with a secret-service background. Since then, and as elected president [in May], Putin has enjoyed -- according to opinion polls -- an almost incredible wave of popularity. That much freedom has been lost in the process," the paper goes on, "doesn't seem to bother many Russians, apart from a few intellectuals and liberals. And," it adds, "the West -- which first timidly protested [Putin's launching of] an offensive in Chechnya -- has now definitively shut up."

"Even worse," the French paper's editorial says, "Putin is now treated by Western Europe and the United States the way they dealt with Yeltsin during his [early] moments of glory." That's all the more striking, it adds, because "in distinction to Yeltsin, Putin does not even feign a democratic facade. He reigns," the paper argues, "as an autocrat, governing Russia with the essential support of the secret police, as did the communists and the tsars before them."

The editorial sums up: "Thus, if Putin publicly combats communism, he is maintaining the traditions inherited from the Soviet Union." It then asks: "Isn't Putin's real recipe for staying in power simply a matter of disassociating himself from the West and to relying exclusively on Russian patriotism?" If it is, the paper says, "then Russia will remain an enigma -- like Putin himself."


West European commentators continue to express concern about the recent upsurge of far-right violence in Germany. A news analysis in the Irish Times by Denis Staunton begins: "Four murders in eight weeks and a bomb attack on a Duesseldorf commuter railway station which injured nine immigrants, five of them Jewish, have propelled the menace of right-wing violence to the top of Germany's political agenda this summer. As each day brings new attacks on foreigners," Staunton writes from Berlin, "Germany's politicians and opinion formers are struggling for an answer to the problem. The police admit the problem is out of control and business leaders say the situation is scaring off much-needed foreign investors."

He continues: "Skinhead gangs, organized in small, autonomous groups known as 'freie Kameradschaften' (literally, open clubs of comrades) have declared entire eastern towns 'nationally-liberated zones,' no-go areas for foreigners where police cannot guarantee anyone's safety. Although dark-skinned foreigners are the main targets, skinheads also attack left-wing people, the homeless, the disabled and gays. In one eastern region," he adds, "social workers have reported attacks on single mothers, who were told they should establish 'a proper German family.'"

The analysis continues: "[German] left-wing people point out bitterly that when the leftist Red Army Faction emerged as a threat in the 1970s, the state's response was swift and brutal, unlike today's dithering over right-wing violence. During its 20-year campaign, the Red Army Faction murdered 33 people, [while] more than 100 people have been killed by right-wing extremists during the past 10 years."


Another analysis, this one by Roger Boyes in Britain's Times daily, says that "Germany is in a state of virtual civil war. Day after day," he writes from Germany, "the entire political class, with trade unions and assorted celebrities, are declaring their determination to stamp out the evil represented by neo-Nazis. The far right, encouraged by all the publicity, is attacking foreigners with renewed vigor. Newspapers and television are reporting the conflict with breathless urgency as if the front line is shifting, as if real battles are being fought."

The analysis continues: "The truth, however, is that Germany is acting out a pantomime. The government is producing mainly hot air. Politicians are filling the summer void with get-tough rhetoric. Neo-Nazi violence is at much the same level as it has been since 1993. Every day something happens -- a refugee hostel's windows are shattered, swastikas are painted on Jewish graves or on a mosque walls -- and it barely enters public consciousness."

Boyes goes on: "What has happened this summer is a sudden realization, prompted by a bomb attack on Russian Jews [in Duesseldorf], that the far right has become a fixed part of the political culture rather than just a passing protest movement. The foreign press," he says, "has been giving warning of this for years. The government and its diplomats deplored the coverage." But now, he adds, "the German media have grasped that there is something badly wrong."

He also says: "The political response, however, is full of muddled thinking. [There] is the illusion that neo-Nazi violence is a uniform phenomenon, part of a broader European trend. In fact, racism in western Germany is a quite separate phenomenon from that in the east. The difference highlights just how poorly east and west German culture has merged and it represents a failure in the process of unification."


In the Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Carl Cramer writes from Berlin about "my neighbor, the neo-Nazi." He says: "It's not particularly out-of-the-ordinary to have a neo-Nazi for a neighbor, right here in [a former East German area of] Berlin. That's just the way it is. It's like getting used to something unbearable."

Cramer describes his neighbor, "Helmut Hero [not his real name], as a man in his mid-40s who usually shows up [on his balcony] in the protection of a few men who are markedly younger than he is, toting several plastic bags full of beer and booze from the supermarket."

The commentary goes on: "'Sieg heil!' explodes not only from [Helmut's] speakers, but from the group's mouths as well. There's lots of talk about "dagos" [that is, Italians and other Latins] who weren't around in the old East, or of 'leftist packs of Polacks' [that is, Poles] needing to be 'gassed.' They talk about 'Jew pigs.' Many of the words they use, like 'pack,' are consciously informed by the debased, toxic language of the Third Reich."


There are also two editorials today on recent developments in Yugoslavia. Britain's Financial Times writes: "The two Britons and two Canadians yesterday brought to Belgrade and charged with attempting terrorism in Montenegro are the latest pawns in President Slobodan Milosevic's deadly political chess game. The Yugoslav leader," the paper says, "is playing for high stakes in an election next month that could give him a further eight years in power. But his victory is not certain. So he is evidently attempting to whip up anti-Western sentiment."

The editorial continues: "In Serbia, the democratic opposition has again ignored constant Western urging to unite. Vuk Draskovic, the highly ambiguous opposition leader who flounced out of the Belgrade government during last year's conflict with NATO, is fielding a candidate in competition with one backed by 15 other opposition parties. The opposition's division," the paper adds, "may not be fatal if one of its candidates makes it into a second round of voting and provides a rallying point for all anti-Milosevic forces. But the division increases the chances of the opposition failing in the first round."

The editorial concludes: "Serbia's best bet lies in its democrats standing up and being counted next month. They know the consequences if they do not."


In Denmark, the daily Politiken warns that, even "in the unlikely event that it wins, a victory by the Serbian opposition appears certain not to be recognized by the regime -- and possibly not made known to the public at all."

"Milosevic," the paper writes, "decided to call the election with the sole purpose of winning it -- with all the means he has available at his disposal. Bullying of the press continues unabated. The offices of various opposition groupings are being ransacked by the security services. Arbitrary arrests are being made. Political cleansing of the judiciary is the rule rather than the exception. The kind of protection the opposition could hope for in the past is gone."

The editorial also says: "For now, the opposition has two things to worry about. One is to get the regime to recognize the true results of the election. The other is to prevent Vuk Draskovic from muddying the election campaign, as he has done many times in the past."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen also contributed to this report.)