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Western Press Review: Russia After The Kursk; EU, Poland

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 28 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western press commentators today remain concerned with the significance for Russia of the Kursk nuclear disaster, which occurred more than two weeks ago. Others discuss right-wing extremism in the European Union and the state of post-communist Poland 20 years after the founding of the Solidarity trade union that marked the beginning of communism's end.


In an editorial entitled "Needling [President Vladimir] Putin," the Irish Times writes: "Pictures of what appears to have been the forcible sedation of the mother of a victim of the Kursk submarine tragedy shocked the world. They signaled," the paper says, "a possible return to old and unacceptable ways. Forcible sedation was, indeed, a method used by the Soviet security services to ensure that the views of awkward dissidents were silenced. It did not work then and it most certainly will not work now."

But the editorial goes on to say: "Despite the tragedy of the Kursk, the confused and inadequate response of the security services and President Putin's indefensible absence for a large part of the proceedings, Russia has changed irrevocably since the days when freedom of expression was ruthlessly stamped out." It notes, too, that "Mrs. Nadeszhda Tylik, in what appeared to be a concession to officialdom, has now stated that the controversial injection was administered to her at her husband's request and that it was not a sedative but a medication for her heart complaint. It is significant, however," the paper says, "that at the same time she refused to withdraw her criticism of the authorities and stated her intention to continue a campaign for justice for those who died in the Kursk."

The paper also says that Putin "should bear in mind that Mrs. Tylik represents a citizenry which is determined that its voice be heard and is prepared to go to great lengths in order do so." It concludes that achieving a measure of freedom of expression in the last years of the Soviet Union "was not an easy task and was opposed strongly the Soviet establishment. Removing it completely [in Russia, its says] would be far more difficult, if not impossible."


In the International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff asks whether the humiliation the Kursk disaster has brought to Russia is "a force for renewal or a force for collapse." He writes: "The Kursk affair has been widely taken in Russian opinion as one of those crucial events that suddenly, blindingly, reveal the condition of a nation. A reaction [of some sort] is inevitable."

Pfaff continues: "The blundering and dissimulation of Russian naval authorities made a shameful contrast to the efficiency of the Norwegian deepwater divers. The maladroit response to the tragedy by Vladimir Putin dealt a blow to his new government. [Humiliation. he says,] can be a powerful force."

"The Kursk episode," he adds, "comes after a 1980s decade in which the Soviet state itself sank. It follows the 1990s, when the popular hopes invested in democratization and Westernizing reform were betrayed by the incompetence, misconduct and personal corruption of those who had taken control of the country. The events surrounding the loss of the Kursk have produced profound emotion across Russia. It is just imaginable that Vladimir Putin's government might turn that emotion toward national revival."

On the other hand, Pfaff concludes, "it also is possible that the Kursk drama will [catalyze] the desperation felt among the population and feed frustration and national self-loathing among Russia's intellectuals and non-state elites."


In the U.S daily Christian Science Monitor, analyst Jon Wolfsthal says "there's one question no one is asking: Why are these [nuclear] subs at sea at all? The cold war is over, the reason for keeping them at sea is gone, and the risk the next accident will involve a sub carrying nuclear weapons is unacceptably high."

He goes on: "There are significant risks and costs to keeping such large arsenals at sea. The odds increase every day that the next Russian sub accident will involve a ship carrying nuclear missiles. [It's] still not clear if the reactors on the Kursk are safe, and Russian claims that no nuclear weapons are on board are impossible to verify. A future accident could easily involve a reactor leak, put nuclear weapons at risk, and lead to widespread environmental damage."

Wolfsthal sums up: "U.S. and Russian subs are trapped in a [kind of vicious cycle]. Keeping U.S. missile subs at sea forces Russia to keep its attack subs out there looking for U.S. subs, and encourages Russia to keep as many strategic missile subs at sea as possible. This," he adds, "in turn forces the U.S. to keep its arsenal of attack subs artificially high, tracking Russian subs. This all signals third parties, such as India and Iran, that they need sea-based systems if they're to become 'real' nuclear powers."

"The solution," he says, "is simple: Keep the subs at home. [The] benefits to the U.S. and Russian budgets would be significant, as would be the benefits to global security, moving one more step away from the nuclear brinkmanship of the cold war."


In Britain's Financial Times, French international-affairs analyst Dominique Moisi wonders about the effect of the Kursk tragedy on Western policy toward a Putin-run Russia. He asks in an commentary: "Where should Europe and the U.S. place the emphasis in their relations with Moscow? On the new-found transparency of the Russian president, or on the initial Soviet-style reaction to the sinking of the Kursk? The answer," Moisi says, "hinges on whether the events of the last week are a sign of change or of continuity." The commentator says further: "Russia wants to join Europe, to be a normal country. Europe shares that aspiration. But a normal country does not sacrifice the lives of its young sailors out of pride, incompetence and a malign desire for secrecy. Russia," he adds, "has the worst of all worlds: its state is too weak and its Machiavellian instincts too strong."

Then he concludes: "The Russia that Europe wants to see emerge is the same country that Russian citizens are asking for. Of course," he says, "those in power in Russia can use nationalist frustrations and humiliations to resist change. But after the tragedy of the Kursk," Moisi argues, "Moscow can no longer delude itself about the condition of its navy or the deep feelings of its people. The West has a part to play in this transition: firmness and openness will help Russia become a normal country, not cynicism, short-term greed or indifference."


Denmark's daily Information worries about what it regards as an upsurge in racism in the European Union. The paper writes in an editorial: "To say that racism is again showing its ugly face in Europe would be an understatement. It is a many-headed monster whose appearance varies from country to country. EU members continue to tighten their immigration legislation, making it more difficult for refugees and economic migrants to come here. Extreme right-wing parties are on the ascent and neo-Nazi groups indulge in racist violence. A new wave of xenophobia is with us, and it has more and more popular support."

The editorial goes on: "Racist forces, which previously thrived on the periphery of politics, have now come center stage. Many mainstream parties in EU states have resorted to racist language and ideas. [In a way, the paper says,] this is the price both social democratic and conservative parties now have to pay for having cooperated with extremist elements in past times."

"The richer part of Europe," the editorial argues, "is motivated by the conviction that in a globalized world political freedom and economic welfare should be distributed more equally: its worry that the conditions in the Third World [where most of the refugees and migrants come from] are still unsatisfactory is real. Still," the paper adds, "the EU's concern would be much more convincing if it first managed to handle the problems in its own backyard." It concludes: "The values and ideals Europe itself holds so dear are being put to the test [by its own extremist parties]. That democratic values do not exist in many countries in the world is no excuse to undermine them in Europe."


In the Financial Times, a commentary by John Reed on the state of Poland today says the country has "strayed from the path of reform." He writes: "Twenty years ago this month, Solidarity was founded, putting Poland in the vanguard of eastern Europe's free-market revolution. Yet this year's anniversary celebrations may ring hollow. After the dramatic economic reforms of the past decade, Poland is showing signs of losing competitiveness among its neighbors, which are racing ahead with reforms of their own. Moreover," he adds, "as the largest applicant to join the European Union, Poland is pivotal to the success of the entire EU enlargement process."

The commentator goes on: "Amid growing rancor among Solidarity's successor parties, it is uncertain whether Lech Walesa, the movement's legendary founder, will attend the celebrations. Meanwhile, Poland's minority Solidarity government is passing voter-friendly legislation -- dubbed 'electoral sausage' by the Poles - ahead of next year's elections.

Reed also says: "The state of Polish industry is of deep interest to the EU. With a third of the 12 candidate countries' population and 40 per cent of their [gross domestic product], an expanded EU will flourish or falter on Poland's ability to pull its weight." Then he notes: "Hungary and other small [east European] applicants, anxious about their own EU bids, are quietly urging Brussels to relegate Poland, with its structural problems, to a second group of would-be members."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)