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Press Review: Is Russia Backing Away From Reform?

By Stephanie Baker and Fred Woefel

Prague, Jan. 26 (RFE/RL) - Russia is again dominating the editorial pages of today's western newspapers. Commentators are looking at the fate of Russian reform efforts after the appointment of Vladimir Kadannikov to the post of First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economy. They are also assessing yesterday's decision to admit Russia into the Council of Europe.

In a news analysis today in the British daily Guardian, David Hearst writes: "The appointment of Vladimir Kadannikov, the director of AutoVaz, Russia's biggest and most troubled car maker, as first deputy prime minister, was the clearest sign yet of the rise of the industrial lobby in the government. It wants controls on energy prices, tariffs on foreign imports and the end of punitive taxation." Hearst argues that "Mr. Kadannikov's appointment will further isolate Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister." He notes that Kadannikov openly criticized Chernomyrdin earlier this week for being out of touch with industry.

An editorial in today's Financial Times of London, entitled "Russia Steps Backwards," says: "Westerners with an interest in Russian economic success must come to terms with the fact that the country has effectively acquired a new government -- with new priorities. They should not cling to the hope that the shifts in policy and personnel since the December parliamentary elections only signal changes in style, not substance." The editorial argues: "President Boris Yeltsin has sought to encourage such wishful thinking.... But there is little evidence to suggest that the new cabinet members will be any more committed to transparency and economic pluralism in the macroeconomic realm -- quite the reverse." The paper continues: "People should be wary of putting too much faith in Mr. Yeltsin's very questionable economic judgement in the run-up to the election." The Financial Times concludes that westerners should not "continue to presume that Mr. Yeltsin should be supported at all costs, on the assumption that the West's interests in a stable, pluralistic market economy in Russia is one that he -- and he alone -- shares."

In a news analysis in today's London Times, Richard Beeston observes that the appointment of Kadannikov "although predicted, was greeted with widespread disappointment in the business community." He says: "The threat of a U-turn in Russian economic policy, away from reform and back towards protectionism and government subsidies had already been signalled." Beeston writes: "The Kremlin's apparent policy change seems aimed at wooing disaffected voters away from the Communists.... However, the tactic of subsidising loss making industries, increasing pensions, and freezing reforms could backfire badly."

A news analysis by Michael Gordon in today's New York Times calls Kadannikov's appointment "the most vivid display yet of (Yeltsin's) disenchantment with economic reform." Gordon argues that the policy shift "has led the Russian government to issue sharply divergent statements to Western governments and to its own electorate. With one eye on foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund... Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin have insisted that the basic direction of economic reform will not change." But he points out that when Yeltsin addresses the electorate he has been "unsparing" in his criticism of reform. Gordon says: "The worry for Western governments is that Yeltsin is putting political expediency ahead of sound reform."

Phil Reeves, writing today in the British daily Independent, notes that the appointment of Kadannikov is "certain to fuel fears among the free market lobby that the embattled President is willing to sacrifice Russia's tough, if painful, anti-inflationary strategy in order to win support among an estranged electorate." He writes that President Yeltsin seems to have two aims: "On the one hand, he seems to want to convince reformers that his latest moves are merely vote winning tactics; on the other, he is clearly hoping to overhaul his image, presenting himself as a decisive leader who will slay the dragons of corruption and poverty. Whether cosmetic or not the shift has been nothing if not eventful."

An opinion piece by Alan Philips in today's Daily Telegraph, entitled "West Shivers as the Iceman Cometh," takes a long look at policy changes in the Kremlin as exemplified by newly-appointed Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Philips notes that American foreign policy commentators have called him "the 'Iceman' who beneath a veneer of charm 'displays a constant and deep distrust of U.S. motives in foreign affairs'." Philips acknowledges that the contrast with his predecessor Andrei Kozyrev is stark, writing: "Mr. Kozyrev was smiling and soft-spoken. Mr. Primakov is more authoritarian, with the stamp of the Soviet elite on him." But he contends that: "compared with some of the dinosaurs occupying positions of power (since) the liberals have been sent packing, he seems quite reasonable, English-speaking and with a broad knowledge of the outside world." Philips writes: "His career shows that he is a man who could work under different regimes but who flourished under Mr. Gorbachev's liberalisation." Nevertheless, writes Philips, Primakov "comes to the job with his nationalist credentials well-established." He says: "A hardline policy has been in place for some time. Mr Primakov is just a more credible figure than Mr. Kozyrev to implement it." Philips concludes that Primakov's "aura proclaims to ordinary Russians that the 'age of unconditional surrender to the West' over."

In an opinion piece in today's Financial Times, Janusz Reiter examines new challenges to NATO expansion in light of the cabinet reshuffle in Moscow. He writes: "The hardening of Russian policy is a fact. Mr. Primakov, as the head of Russian diplomacy, personifies this change. His initial statements, including those on Poland, do not leave any room for illusions." Reiter recalls recent statements by Primakov that while Moscow would not consider any military intervention in Poland, Russia could not accept Poland's accession to NATO. Reiter says: "This language is tough but clear. The west has not used such tough language for a long time." He continues: "What are at stake are geopolitical interests. Moscow wants political room to maneuver in central Europe.... those who are interested in a good relationship between Europe and Russia should be doing everything in their power to prevent the historic triangle of tension between Russia, Poland and Germany from resurfacing." Reiter concludes: "Mr. Primakov's harsh language is not necessarily a bad omen. In this 'window of opportunity,' real interests are being negotiated and niceties do not need to be exchanged."

Jean Quatremer, writing today in the French daily Liberation, looks at yesterday's decision to admit Russia into the Council of Europe. Quatremer notes that Russia was accepted into the Strasbourg-based organization despite criticism from some corners about human rights abuses in Chechnya. Quatremer says Moscow's moral scruples are "well worth covering... with a fig leaf." He says: "The assembly decided that it was more worthwhile to admit the sick man of Europe into the sanitorium of democracy, which the Council of Europe is supposed to be, in the words of the Bulgarian socialist (ex-communist) Philip Bokov, than to isolate and risk strengthening the forces of nationalism and communism in Russia."

A commentary in the Swiss daily "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" uses the headline: "The Council of Europe 'Swallows' Russia." The paper says that the institution "has taken on too much by admitting Russia, especially at a time when it is visible to everyone that this big nation does not belong in this organisation." It says: "The parliamentarians in Strasbourg -- advised by their governments -- found it justified to give Russia democratic blessings and a show of confidence. One can only suspect that Paris, Bonn and the other European Union governments were led by the principle of 'polititical economy,' and believed that admitting Russia would not cost anything."