Prague, 27 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much Western press commentary today focused on yesterday's vote by the Ukrainian parliament to oust the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Under headlines like "Clouds Over Kyiv" and "Meltdown in Kyiv," editorial writers said that yesterday's no-confidence vote was a large step for Ukraine -- a step away from the West, and toward Russia. Another editorial looks at the trial in Russia of American student John Tobin, whose case may be more a matter of spy-game tit-for-tat than punishing a minor drug offender.
Gerhard Gnauck comments on the Ukrainian ouster of Viktor Yushchenko's government in Germany's "Die Welt" as if he were writing an obituary. He says: "Yesterday Ukraine had a double reason for mourning. Candles, prayers, and church-bell ringing served as a reminder that exactly 15 years ago the explosion of the atomic reactor occurred in Chornobyl. [While] orators and whistling in front of parliament accompanied the fall of Yushchenko's government, deputies supporting the government spoke of a 'political Chornobyl' and the most absurd decision yet adopted by parliament."
This expression of regret is followed by eulogies worthy of the most democratic government: "With Yushchenko's [exit] a reformer has been forced out of office in a country hovering with difficulty on the edge of Europe. Since Ukraine gained its independence, nobody has tackled all-embracing reforms so successfully. There has rarely been a constellation in East Europe in recent years whereby the head of government has been a thorough reformer and the most popular politician in the land. Within barely eighteen months Yushchenko succeeded, for the first time since 1991, in achieving a growth in the economy (6 percent)."
The commentary ends on a pessimistic note. Although an absolute reversion to communism is unlikely, says Gnauck, the reform impulse of recent years has gone with the wind. The possible result could be stagnation. He also poses the question: Has the EU been sufficiently supportive of Ukraine?
Brigitte Kols in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" regards events in Ukraine as the reverse of what might have been expected: "For months demonstrators and the opposition have called for the resignation of Leonid Kuchma. There is talk of a crisis, of rivalries and destabilization, of President Kuchma's weaknesses. And what happens? In parliament the Communists, Kuchma supporters, and factions, bolstered by mighty economic angels, have gotten together to cast by an overwhelming majority a vote of no confidence in Viktor Yushchenko -- the prime minister who has become a more and more uncomfortable proposition due to his reforms, rising popularity, and for holding his distance from the president."
Kols concludes that in spite of all the protests and criticism, "others will decide on the course of Ukraine politics."
An editorial in Britain's "Times" says Ukraine has "destroyed its best hope of a better future." The paper says: "Ukraine, which a century ago was known as Europe's breadbasket, has plunged deeper into misery with the dismissal of its most reformist post-Soviet prime minister. [His] removal will thus hasten the country's regression, visible since early this year, into the orbit of its old imperial master, Russia. Its limping nine-year westward march has been halted."
It adds: "Reintegration has been bolstered by a surge in Russian capital investment in cash-strapped Ukraine. Russian business interests have snapped up oil refineries, aluminum plants, dairies, banks, and Ukrainian broadcasting channels. These investments have brought in needed capital; but there is cause to fear that Russian investment will sap Ukrainian sovereignty if it is not balanced by investments from the West -- of which there is now a scantier chance than ever."
Britain's "Financial Times" writes in an editorial that "in Ukraine, much now depends on President Leonid Kuchma. [He] can make a serious effort to meet public concerns. Or he can continue to try to ride out the storm in the hope that public opinion will return to its normal passive calm by the time of next year's parliamentary election. He is likely to do the second."
The paper adds: "This leaves the West with a dilemma. If it tries to cooperate with Mr. Kuchma, it will be accused of supporting an illiberal regime. But if it plays tough, it risks driving Kiev into Moscow's arms." It concludes: "The West should make clear that it supports Ukraine while maintaining its distance from Mr. Kuchma."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
An editorial in the "Wall Street Journal Europe" turns its sights on the case of John Tobin, the 24-year-old American student who may face four years in a Russian prison if found guilty in his drug-possession trial, which ends today. The paper says: "If this were just another case of another Western kid running afoul of a host country's well-known drug laws, we would not feel our heartstrings pulled. But Mr. Tobin's case belongs in another category. His arrest came only a week after U.S. counterintelligence expert Robert Philip Hanssen was caught spying for Russia and the Bush administration decided to expel dozens of Moscow's 'diplomats' from Washington."
It adds: "Whether or not Mr. Tobin is guilty, his case clearly has less to do with upholding Russia's rule of law than promoting someone's idea of a foreign policy. [In] other words, policy in Russia is being set either by people with no competence or people with no scruples. Poor John Tobin is being forced to pay the price."
Two commentaries look at Montenegro's parliamentary elections last Sunday (22 April), in which a majority of voters supported parties which campaigned to break with Serbia and make a bid for independence. In an editorial titled "Montenegro vs. the World," the "Washington Post" writes that Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic's call for a referendum on full independence for the Yugoslav republic is "troubling on several grounds."
It elaborates: "For most of its history, the republic has been culturally and politically inseparable from Serbia, with which it shares both religion and language. Western governments consequently fear that if Montenegro declares independence, the far larger Albanian population in neighboring Kosovo will insist on independence as well. So might the Albanian population of Macedonia, or the Sanjak region of Serbia -- not to mention the three ethnic communities of Bosnia. Caught in the middle will be the Western governments and peacekeeping forces that have already fought two wars and spent tens of billions of dollars trying to collect the fragments of the Balkans into viable and stable countries." And it adds: "Independence for Montenegro is more than geopolitically inconvenient; it would almost certainly be a bad course for the Montenegrins. [The] republic would probably become an isolated and unstable backwater, and even poorer than it is today."
Commentator Jonathan Steele, writing in Britain's "Guardian," says Djukanovic's bid for independence is not surprising: "After all," he writes, "for several years [Montenegrins] had been tempted with the charms of independence by the West itself, which wanted them to assert as much autonomy from [Slobodan] Milosevic's Belgrade as possible. The West helped Montenegro to break from the Serbian economy by introducing the Deutsch mark as its official currency. During the Kosovo crisis Montenegro's leaders were offered constant trips to foreign summits with all the trappings of independent status."
Steele continues: "Djukanovic will certainly have difficulties with a fully-fledged referendum on independence. [But] a Yes vote will give him a moral case which will be hard to resist if his side gets as big a margin as it did in Sunday's general election. [The] West should be neutral about independence but make it clear it will put enough observers in place to monitor the referendum's fairness and ensure its results are implemented non-violently and through negotiation, both inside Montenegro and between Podgorica and Belgrade."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
Commentator Flora Lewis writes in the "International Herald Tribune": "Two hard facts emerge from the miasma of argument [over how to resolve the Middle East crisis.] The low-level but unremitting warfare now going on is becoming intolerable, and nobody can figure out an acceptable way to stop it. It must be deduced that neither side really wants to stop it urgently enough to make key concessions."
She writes that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has "repeated that he would not give up one inch of Jerusalem, would not dismantle one Jewish settlement, would not refrain from building new ones. That doesn't leave much for the two sides to talk about even if assorted outside pressures were to bring renewed high-level meetings."
Lewis concludes: "So long as the dominant view in both societies has not yet come to value peace enough to concede conditions for an undisturbed, self-sustaining life to the others, talking will just be another form of confrontation."
(Dora Slaba contributed to this press review)