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Press Review: Western Press Ponders An Uncertain Russia

By Stephanie Baker and Joel Blocker

Prague, Jan. 22 (RFE/RL) - Russia is the focus of today's western press commentary. Newspapers are examining the future of Russian democracy in the aftermath of the hostage crisis in Pervomayskaya, and the cabinet changes that followed last month's parliamentary elections.

An editorial in today's Washington Post entitled a "bitter Russian winter" looks at what the hostage crisis means for Russian reform. It says: "If you start, as most people do, from the belief that Russia had a right to resist the separatist drive and the separatist hostage-taking in Chechnya, you still can be much troubled by how Russia finally ended this latest ordeal. Moscow did not demonstrate that it had exhausted the potential of negotiation or mediation." The editorial notes: "For President Boris Yeltsin the crisis became an assault on his leadership and prestige. The authority of the state had been directly challenged....But plainly Mr Yeltsin feared heading into a possible re-election campaign being called soft on rebellion and terrorism." The newspaper argues that "a principle of territorial integrity has been upheld...(but) it is far from clear that Moscow can effectively prepare for further challenges to be expected from the Chechen side." It concludes: "Boris Yeltsin's stewardship makes supporters of democratic reform wonder whether they would do better with him or without him."

Britain's Guardian, in an editorial today titled "backing Boris," argues that the "West must keep its nerve on Russia." Calling the assault on Pervomayskaya a "shambling, botched affair," the editorial says that Yeltsin "is now widely perceived as a turn-coat, no longer a champion of reform and democracy and instead a champion of Russian nationalism." The newspaper asks: "Will Boris Yeltsin go down like his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev?" It points out that like Gorbachev, Yeltsin has sacked reformers, such as Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, and surrounded himself with hardliners. And the paper notes: "Like Gorbachev, who sent troops into the Baltic republics in his vain attempt to prevent the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin opted for war against Chechnya as a deterrent against an eventual break-up of the Russian federation." The editorial concludes: "The West plainly has very little influence on political developments in Russia. But it must speak and act with caution and refrain from driving Moscow into isolation."

A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune argues that Chechnya is part of a larger trend in Russia away from a "stable, free-market democracy." It contends: "There is no doubt that Yeltsin is taking a hard right turn. He has forced from the cabinet the coterie that shaped all his early reforms." But the paper argues this strategy will fail. It says: "No nationalist voters will fall for this act of firing ministers and fueling up rhetoric; those actions are transparent cosmetics applied for the presidential election." The editorial concludes: "Yeltsin now may lose his office and send his state staggering back to the dark old days."

Writing in the French daily Le Monde, Francoise Lazare asks whether President Boris Yeltsin who, she notes, has "taken his distances from reformers following the communists' success in December's parliamentary elections, does not now intend to change radically his economic policies, indeed to turn his back on the free market?" In her news analysis, she says that most informed observers do not believe this will happen, and have accordingly reacted with calm to last week's resignation of Deputy Prime Minsiter Anatoli Chubais, "the strong man of privatization" and the last of Yeltsin's high-level reformers to quit the government. That's largely because, Lazare writes, the president is already a "hostage to the free market" and really has no choice: "Even if he wanted to, Boris Yeltsin could only (undertake major economic changes) with great difficulty. In the months before the June presidential election, he must face several important international days of reckoning: the granting of credits by the (International Monetary Fund), the negotiation of a long-term recheduling of the country's external debt of $120 billion, the reconversion of its commercial debt with some 800 foreign banks." The president, she concludes, could conceivably turn his back on his international obligations, but will probably not do so because "Russia would (then) lose its power to attract loans from abroad."

In a signed editorial in today's French daily Figaro entitled "Communism's New Masks," foreign editor Charles Lambroschini surveys the return to political power of former Communist parties in eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. He concludes that "only Russia is really threatened by the restoration of a Marxist regime." Lambroschini writes: "Contrary to other fraternal parties in the former socialist bloc, the Russian CP has remained firmly on the (Marxist) line. It has exploited the frustrations of a population largely pauperized by the conversion of the country to a free-market economy. It advocates equality at the expense of freedom. It promises social justice through nationalization of businesses and public security through the reinforcement of the police." But, he adds, the party has also been smart enough to change its ideology somewhat, "giving up proletarian internationalism for... nationalism (and) renouncing atheisim to support Orthodoxy."

In a news analysis in today's Washington Pos, Lee Hockstader writes: "With practically every move he has made this year, President Boris Yeltsin has distanced himself from the reformist principles that his government has championed and embraced the agenda of his Communist and nationalist opponents." He argues that Yeltsin's "strategy is clear: By attacking the unpopular policies that have defined his own presidency, he hopes to accomodate and outflank his opponents." But Hockstader says Yeltsin's attempt to "radically retool his image" is not just cosmetic. He writes: "Image-making can be about substance, too. A government devoid of reformers is unlikely to pursue reforms. Increasingly, Mr. Yeltsin's government looks, sounds and acts like its Communist predecessors. And the president himself, ailing, blustering, table-thumping, menacing, is starting to bear a striking resemblance to his Soviet forebears." Hockstader concludes that Yeltsin indeed is starting to look like Gorbachev, but with one crucial exception: "If Mr. Yeltsin falters the alternative is not a fresh team of young reformers, but communists and nationalists."

Britain's Observer yesterday carried a staff-written news analysis which looked at how Yeltsin's "brutal lurch to the right has reignited Western fears about aggressive Russian expansionism." The writers note: "Like it or not, the West has put its faith in Yeltsin as the best democratic hope around....(but) The Yeltsin that a few months ago seemed an obstacle to hardline nationalists now seems to have joined them." They write: " seems firmly headed toward uncharted waters without a compass. Apparently Yeltsin will sacrifice anything to the imperative of winning the election. " The writers speculate that Yeltsin may be positioning himself as the safe candidate in the June presidential poll: "If in June the electorate is faced with two candidates - himself and a communist or nationalist, for example - who stand for much the same thing, they will go for the familiar one, the one less likely to cause fresh upheaval by putting all his untried and 'hungry' cronies in power." They conclude: "The new Russia is revealing itself to be not so much the old Soviet Union, but the old Russia that always lurked behind the rhetoric and dogma of communism." In a news analysis in today's Los Angeles Times, Richard Boudreaux examines Yeltsin's re-election strategy. He writes: "If economic recovery stalls, (Yeltsin) could blame Chernomyrdin and fire him. Faced with healthier rivals who can barnstorm the country, Yeltsin could hit the road selectively, making use of state-controlled television and his ties with many regional govenors." But Boudreaux calls Yeltsin's strategy "risky." He argues: " Russians willing to accept a merciless response to Chechen hostage-takers now may lose patience with Yeltsin if, as seems likely, his hapless army cannot defeat the rebels by spring." Boudreaux concludes: "As Mikhail Gorbachev learned in the dying days of the Soviet Union, hard-line foes can be unforgiving; Yeltsin, like the Soviet leader, may not be able to save his job by embracing them."