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Western Press Review: Is Russian Crackdown Real Attempt At Reform Or Politically Motivated Campaign?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the first part of RFE/RL's press review today we take a look at Russia's crackdown on its oligarchs, a move some observers suspect of being linked to parliamentary elections in December and attempts by President Vladimir Putin to consolidate his power. We also take a look at how the Serbian mafia undercuts security in the Balkans, Uzbek-U.S. relations, and seeking justice for the victims of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, among other issues.


Writing in "The Moscow Times," Yulia Latynina offers some possible explanations for why the Russian security services, or siloviki, are making investigative rounds at some of Russia's largest companies these days, including oil giants Yukos and Sibneft. Latynina says perhaps President Vladimir Putin ordered the crackdown as part of a campaign strategy based on getting tough with Russia's oligarchs, timed well ahead of December parliamentary elections. Putin may be seeking to secure a large majority in parliament with a move "guaranteed" to have "voter appeal" before he runs for re-election in March.

Latynina observes that siloviki have gone after oligarchs in the past, demanding millions in additional payments for what they called the "undervalued privatization" of Russian companies. "Then they went after Yukos," says the paper. But Yukos chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovskii "wouldn't grease their palms." Khodorkovskii's closest business associate, Menatep Group head Platon Lebedev, was arrested on 2 July.

Latynina says these theories "have one thing in common: They accept as a given the intervention of the siloviki in the economic process." But security services "participate in the political and economic life of a contemporary state only when the state is ruled by a junta."

Latynina says if these moves against Yukos and other companies are part of a campaign strategy, the siloviki have miscalculated: "Big business won't wait around to be gutted," she writes. "Top executives and their money will head West. Russia will wind up in poverty, and an impoverished Russia will vote for the Communists."


A "Stratfor" (Strategic Forecasting LLC) commentary takes a look at Washington's reaction to the apparent power struggle taking place between Vladimir Putin and Russia's richest man, Yukos chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovskii. The Kremlin has "mounted a coordinated campaign" against Khodorkovskii, "Stratfor" says. Several investigation are ongoing into his business dealings and associates, and these inquiries "reflect a struggle between Khodorkovskii and Putin for political control." The outcome of this contest will affect the future of Russia itself, the commentary says.

The U.S. administration is promoting Khodorkovskii as a possible pro-U.S., pro-business alternative to Putin, says "Stratfor." Washington "has a long-term strategic interest in supporting Khodorkovskii in his struggle" with the Russian president. While Putin has furthered relations with Washington, his Western cooperation has its limits, as his antiwar stance on Iraq demonstrated. "Washington therefore is weighing in on Khodorkovskii's behalf -- but cautiously, since he may lose the current battle and the Bush administration views Russia as better a half-ally than outright foe."

"Stratfor" thus predicts that as a result of Russia's internal power struggle, Washington and Putin's Kremlin will drift farther apart. Even so, the U.S. administration does not want to see Putin's complete political defeat. "Some compromise would suit the [U.S.] administration, one that preserves both U.S. relations with Putin's Russia and Khodorkovskii as a Washington ally."


An analysis by "Jane's Foreign Report" says the Russian tax authorities' investigation of oil consortium Sibneft relates more to parliamentary elections at the end of this year than it does to any real attempt to reform flawed corporate-tax-collection policies. The larger President Vladimir Putin's majority in parliament in December, the more secure his re-election bid next year.

Yukos oil giant chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovskii has publicly supported opposition parties ahead of the elections. The analysis asks whether the government's Yukos investigation could serve "as a clear warning to other Russian magnates not to consider backing the parliamentary opposition?"

The Kremlin may also have another motive. The inquiry may be linked "to Putin's dislike of the proposed merger between Sibneft and Yukos, another major Russian oil company. The merger would create the world's fourth-largest oil producer, a giant by any international standard and a force to be reckoned with in Russia." Platon Lebedev, Menatep bank chairman and Khodorkovskii associate, was arrested on 2 July. Lebedev also "happens to be the major Yukos shareholder, and the aim here may be to 'persuade' him that the merger should not go on after all."

Putin has thus far maintained a truce with the country's oil tycoons: "Provided they stayed out of politics, [Putin] would allow them to retain their wealth, regardless of how suspicious their methods of enrichment were." This truce will likely continue, "provided the oligarchs stay out of power, and provided they remain divided enough so that the Kremlin could exercise some measure of control over them."


A commentary in "The Boston Globe" marks the eighth anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica, in which approximately 8,000 Muslims, mainly men and boys, were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb soldiers who overran the eastern Bosnian town that was officially under United Nations protection.

The commentary emphasizes the need to bring war criminals to justice, saying, "memory alone is not enough, even though the ponderous wheels of justice move slowly." The paper goes on to state, "there should be no statute of limitations on genocide and no wavering in U.S. support for the principles of justice."

For, the paper continues, "The pursuit of justice holds out hope for both healing and prevention.... If the principles of accountability and fair judgment for Balkan war crimes are established in courtrooms in The Hague, the potential accomplices of the next Saddam [Hussein] or [Slobodan] Milosevic may hesitate before abetting new crimes against humanity."


Writing in the "Turkish Daily News," Salman Mofak accuses Western leaders and the media of overemphasizing the rights of the Kurds in Iraq and showing a "total disregard" for Iraq's Turkomans, who are the third-largest ethnic group after the Arabs and the Kurds, comprising about 3 percent to 4 percent of the population, though Turkish nationalists have long claimed the number is much higher.

Mofak argues that the Turkmen have lived for over a millennium on the territory that constitutes today's Iraq. Yet since they were left outside the borders of a new Turkey when Iraq was artificially created, they have experienced "heavy-handed treatment by successive Arab rulers." Now, once again, the Kurds are acquiring complete control and are trying to become the only dominant power in northern Iraq by forcing Kurdish people who are not members of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) to leave the region, he says.

Mofak says: "Ethnic and religious minorities face discrimination and harassment at the hands of the Kurds in northern Iraq. It is shocking and astonishing for us to see that a Kurdish leader is bargaining over Kirkuk, in Turkmeneli, which has been for centuries and still is a predominantly [Turkoman]-populated province."


Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Jean de Belot says installing peace in Iraq is turning out to be a more delicate operation than winning the war. This surprises no one, he says, but the difficulties are only beginning, and no one can tell how major and how serious events to come will be.

The challenge, first and foremost, belongs to the Americans. Undoubtedly, a democratic model can be established through economic growth and a fair division of wealth, he says. But both require time and rely on a sovereign political organization, which presumes the establishment of law and order. And for the moment, only Anglo-American forces can provide much-needed order. But an expanding occupation leads to increasingly hostile reactions from Iraqis; Nationalistic sentiments are preceding the "democratic quest."

The danger is now that we will see the deterioration of a situation that was supposed to serve as a regional model, says de Belot. Due to the failure to find either weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or prove the alleged link between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda, there is now a risk that every new casualty will further erode U.S. public opinion from supporting the occupation. Having lied, de Belot says, neither the British or American leadership can afford to fail.


An analysis by "Jane's Foreign Report" says organized crime's links to the government in Serbia keeps the country "critically unstable, [and] still poses the key risk to Balkan security." While "Serbian territorial integrity is under challenge in Kosovo, Voyvodina, and in its links to Montenegro, [the] main difficulty Serbia faces is the maintenance of the rule of law in the face of organized crime and official corruption." Local mafias function as a sort of shadow government, the analysis says, influencing official governmental administrations and policy "with money and threats."

Late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, slain earlier this year, was viewed by many as too pro-Western, and was organizing a crackdown on organized crime groups -- two oft-cited possible motives for his assassination. But links have also been suspected between Djindjic and a group involved in tobacco smuggling. Thus, says the analysis, the crackdown "on one particular mafia group that followed Djindjic's slaying may [be] less an assertion of the rule of law than of an underlying competition between rival gangs."

The report goes on: "It is clear that mafia influence is so all-pervasive that the present government has not been able to escape their influence. The West's hands may not be clean either," says the report, noting "the relative lack of government action with regard to mafia gangs and the lack of protest from the West." Some observers suspect Western tobacco companies and governments of colluding in Balkan cigarette smuggling for profit or to ensure local cooperation.


Writing in "Eurasia View," Jonathan Feiser of the Power and Interest News Report (PINR), says since the launch of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Uzbekistan "exists both as a strategic hub for U.S. forces, as well as a much-desired ally envisioned by Russia." But there exists an "inherent weakness" in this arrangement, he says. Uzbek President Islam Karimov "runs a one-man government routinely bashed for a variety of human rights and local border violations," which have remained a continuous source of tension with the United States.

One source of the state's "perpetual decay" is the economy, Feiser says. The "nature of Uzbekistan's shadow economy acts as an antithesis to any form of state-building mechanisms. In turn, the essential middle class and privatization management designed to facilitate democratization processes remains morbidly lifeless."

He says, "On the domestic level, a cycle of violence continues [between] blacklisted fundamentalist groups and the state."

Yet for all of Uzbekistan's weaknesses, "a continued effort by the [U.S.] administration to maintain its nation-building efforts within Iraq will require the necessary regional support that bases in Central Asia provide."

Feiser predicts that Tashkent and Washington "will remain loyal allies with sure signs of deepening investments as the war on terrorism continues."

But with Karimov's autocratic rule hindered by a "crippled economy" and the looming question of succession, regional U.S. policy may hinge on Karimov's destiny.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this review)