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Western Press Review: Putin's Second Term, Spain Votes Under The Shadow Of Terrorism, Separatist Moves In Georgia

Prague, 15 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Elections in Russia and Spain over the weekend are much discussed in the press today, as Spanish voters ousted the ruling party in anger at the way it handled last week's (11 March) multiple bomb blasts on Madrid commuter trains. Russia's ballot was less surprising, as President Vladimir Putin easily won a second term in the absence of compelling political rivals. Events in Georgia are also at issue, as tensions grow between Tbilisi and the semi-autonomous government in the breakaway region of Adjaria.


Giles Tremlett of "The Guardian" says Spanish voters reacted angrily in elections yesterday following last week's (11 March) bomb blasts on a series of Madrid-bound commuter trains that killed at least 200 people. The electorate "punished" the ruling party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, "throwing it out of government in an angry reaction to his handling of the aftermath." Jose Luis Rodriguez-Zapatero of the Socialist Party "swept to a surprise victory" in an election that saw a huge turnout, estimated at some 62.9 percent.

There is still uncertainty over who carried out the attack, which was first blamed on the Basque separatist group ETA. ETA has twice denied involvement in the blasts. A videotape left for the Spanish authorities later claimed Al-Qaeda was responsible and was targeting Spain for its support of the U.S.-led Iraq war.

Tremlett says Spain's election was the first example "of a single terrorist attack having a direct [effect] on the outcome of an election in a leading Western country." Protesters on the street of several Spanish cities "accused the government of trying to hide the fact that violent Islamism was to blame and demanded explanations for Mr. Aznar's backing of the Iraq war against the will of some 90 percent of Spaniards."

Tremlett says Prime Minister Aznar's "final mistake" was "to spend the first two days after the Madrid bombings insisting that ETA was probably to blame, despite the fact that it would have been a dramatic change in the terrorist group's tactics."


An editorial in this Moscow-based English-language daily calls the re-election of President Vladimir Putin "as predictable as it was overwhelming." But the "farcical nature of this predetermined ballot [casts] a long shadow over the legitimacy of Putin's second term."

The Kremlin's appeal to Russian voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote was particularly ironic, given that Putin did his best "to produce an election devoid of any competition or substance." Statements on the importance of citizen participation in public life "sounded particularly cynical following an election campaign in which the president did not condescend to campaign, refused to participate in televised debates and did not even present a proper election manifesto. The Kremlin kept tight control of media coverage and just about every other aspect of the election."

The paper says although Putin is "extremely popular and would surely have won anyway in a relatively free and fair election, the Kremlin felt the need for heavy-handed intervention in the electoral process." This "not only reveals the degree of its occupants' insecurity, it also provides a clear indication that Putin and his entourage are playing for keeps in a game that stretches to [the end of this presidential term in] 2008 and well beyond." Russia's system of "managed democracy" tends "towards heavy-handedness because nothing can be left to chance."

The paper asks, "How long will it be before Russia breaks with tsarist and Soviet traditions that leave the country's fate hanging on the whims of one man?"


Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of a forthcoming book on Russian political history under Josef Stalin, says Vladimir Putin is "a quintessentially Russian leader, with very traditional aspirations and interests." And until the West gets used to Putin's methods, he will continue to be a source of "frustration and amazement."

Whenever Putin strays from "the democratic path -- as when he abruptly dismissed his prime minister and entire Cabinet last month -- Western observers tend to either criticize his authoritarianism or simply declare him 'an enigma.'" Many also appear shocked that Putin is appointing so many of his former KGB colleagues to high posts in business or government. But this "ignores that fact that Russia's security forces have never been out of government or the economy [since] 1918."

Vladimir Putin is "a quintessentially Russian leader, with very traditional aspirations and interests."
Russia's security services, or siloviki, "should be seen as heirs to a long-standing tradition. They want a strong state and oppose the disorder of Western democracy." But Montefiore says this does not mean they oppose all change. Instead, the point is that the post-Soviet era finds "the KGB and its culture intact, indeed more respected than ever when everything else has turned to dust." Putin's new siloviki regime "is genuinely popular," Montefiore observes. The Russian people "remain more wedded to security and discipline than to the liberal democracy we in the West believe they should want."


Writing in Britain's "Guardian" daily, Nick Paton says Georgia "inched toward civil war" yesterday when armed troops from Adjaria prevented Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from entering the breakaway republic.

In response, Saakashvili threatened that Tbilisi would institute a partial economic blockade, freezing the bank accounts of top Adjar officials and cutting off its oil port.

Adjaria's leader, Aslan Abashidze, last week accused Georgian troops of sending a military convoy to the republic to overthrow his regime. Paton says Saakashvili "increased the tension" yesterday when he tried to lead a convoy of senior officials to Batumi, the Adjar capital, to campaign for 28 March parliamentary elections.

Armed troops intercepted the convoy, which was forced to detour to the nearby town of Poti.

Saakashvili responded by placing the military on high alert and called for an emergency cabinet meeting. He insists Tbilisi is looking for a peaceful solution, but says he will not back down and allow Georgia to break apart into fiefdoms.

Moscow has in the past acted as mediator in discussions between leaders form Batumi and Tbilisi, but now says any growing crisis would remain the sole responsibility of the Georgian leadership.


William Rees-Mogg of the London-based "Times" says the 11 March date of the Madrid multiple bombings will live "in infamy," much like the 11 September date of the attacks in New York and Washington in 2001.

Rees-Mogg says terrorism has now become a "wholesale trade." With terrorist actions of the past, such as those perpetrated by ETA or the IRA, the purpose "was indeed to create fear, but also to achieve political aims of a limited nature. Even when they were at their most murderous, the IRA were politicians, though criminal politicians. They had their political objective, a united Ireland, and they had political constituencies to maintain."

But he says groups such as Al-Qaeda, which may have been behind the Madrid attack, "[do] not use terror as a political weapon, but as a new type of total war. Whoever killed the 200 in Madrid, they were not seeking to persuade but to destroy."

He says, "When people kill by the hundreds or thousands they change the nature of the crime. We no longer face a potentially negotiable demand with limited objectives, however sinister the means. This is mass murder for the sake of destruction. That has throughout been the hallmark of Al-Qaeda, whether in New York or Bali, it believes in death."


Britain's "Sunday Times" calls the devastating train attacks in Madrid "the worst atrocity in Europe since the Lockerbie bombing" over 15 years ago. The paper adds that it is "a savage reminder that the threat of mindless terrorism is ever-present and close to home."

But an "impressive show of Spanish unity [is now] accompanied by a determination not to let the terrorists win." The millions that marched in Madrid, Barcelona, and elsewhere around the country "[condemned] the terrorists as cowards and murderers [and] sent a brave and defiant message."

If the Basque separatist group ETA committed the attacks, the paper says "we can only hope that it will have alienated many of its own supporters."

Whoever the culprit, last week's events in Spain have shown the terrorists for what they are: "callous and mindless killers with no legitimate political grievance."


Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Jacques Sapir of the School for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences says: "Russia needs change."

Sapir says this might seem ironic, given the positive economic results of past years and the impressive support that Russian Vladimir Putin enjoys from the population. The Russian leader's first mandate was to re-establish stability and adopt sound institutional and economic policy -- this was essential after the chaos of the first post-Soviet years under former President Boris Yeltsin.

But over five years of uninterrupted economic growth should not mask many persistent weaknesses. Russia is poorer today than it was at the beginning of the transition, Sapir says. And a great portion of the population lives under very difficult conditions.

But remedies exist, he says: for example, a more active economic policy and perhaps one that is more interventionist. Increasing state coffers means raising taxes, perhaps beginning with those levied on natural resources.

But the most important reform will be to establish a more effective administration and institutions, he says. The post-Soviet era has been characterized by a major crisis of legitimacy for Russia's political and economic institutions that today's stability masks, in part, but does not resolve.

Putin's second priority should be to concentrate on accelerated growth, Sapir says. The support he now receives from the Russian electorate will not last forever unless important changes are made.