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Press Review: Privatization, Politics And The Chechen War

Prague, Feb. 7 (RFE/RL) - Russia's politics, the economy, and foreign relations has captured the attention of Western press commentary.

Walter Russell Mead, former Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief, wrote a commentary in yesterday's Baltimore Sun saying that the "long thaw" between Washington and Moscow is visibly ending. Mead wrote: "Last week, with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in Washington for a round of talks, both sides were saying the relationship was on track, but they weren't fooling anyone. At the end of the Cold War, Americans and Russians fell in love with one another. Russians accepted every new fad from the West. Western political methods would create a stable and just social order on the ruins of communism...."

Mead continued: "Wrong. The Russians may have believed that Yeltsin and his colleagues were implementing 'Western"'economic and political reforms, but the reality was far different. Russian privatization was a feeding frenzy for various corrupt interests; behind a democratic facade, Russian politics was a struggle among large economic interests.... The wonder is that the love affair lasted as long as it did.... But the news out of Russia isn't as bad as it looks. While the overinflated hopes of a grand U.S-Russian partnership have collapsed, we are not headed into Cold War II. The changes in Russia are not as important as they look, and Russia is in no economic condition to start a new Cold War."

Steve Liesman, writing in today's Wall Street Journal Europe,concludes that Russia is on the brink of renationalizating some hastily privatized enterprises. He says: "Privatization, the most successful and important of Russia's reforms, has come under severe assault in recent days, and some officials are warning that the program could either be curtailed or, in the worst case, reversed.... Russia's prosecutor general, the top law-enforcement official in the country, has said he will review the legality of privatization and exects to levy criminal charges. Also, parliament has formed a special committee to investigate the program. The moves are least partly political and it's unclear how far they can go... In just a couple of years, an estimated 120,000 enterprises were privatized in what amounts to the world's most massive (privatization) effort. But with many of those assets concentrated in the hands of a few, many Russians have been left wondering what they gained from the process."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin is expected to announce by February 15 whether he will run for reelection in presidential elections in June. In the U.S. newspaper Journal of Commerce, Moscow correspondent Geoff Winestock commented yesterday: " It is hard to believe that many Russian citizens will vote once again for the puffy-faced, sickly 65-year-old who dragged them into the war in Chechnya. The pro-Yeltsin party came in a poor third in parliamentary elections in December... In opinion polls, Mr Yeltsin is well behind. But it is still far too early to write Mr Yeltsin off. Incumbency in Russia, much more so than in the United States, confers major political advantages on a president. Indeed, it is almost as it was in the days of communist rule. Then, as now, the head of state can rely on the support of scores of local officials, from taxi managers to local governors to the official media."

In the Financial Times of London today, John Thornhill writes from Moscow: "President Boris Yeltsin has made spending pledges ahead of the presidential elections in June that could be worth (the equivalent of $250) a head and may double the Russian budget deficit this year. Seven presidential pronouncements in recent weeks have promised, among other things, to spend more on rebuilding Chechnya, pay wage arrears to government employees, and increase student grants.... The announcements have led to stark warnings from Mr Anatoly Chubais, the former first deputy prime minister and chief architect of Russia's IMF-approved stabilization programs, that a populist spending spree... could reignite inflation... But, so far, Russia's infant markets have taken both wild promises and fierce warnings remarkably calmly."

Writing in yesterday's Washington Post from the Swiss resort of Davos, William Drozdiak commented on the appearance at the World Economic Forum of Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov: "With Boris Yeltsin in frail health and Russia's free-market program under attack, the rising political fortunes (of Zyuganov) have concentrated the minds of leaders elsewhere who fear a renewed chill in East-West relations if he wins the June presidential vote. Seeking to soften those anxieties, Zuganov visited (Davos) to wage a charm offensive among 1,000 politicians and business executives attending the annual meeting. As he shook hands, slapped backs and sipped champagne, Zyuganov struggled mightily to project his party as a kinder, gentler mutant of its Soviet predecessor."

A political cartoon reproduced in the current Newsweek magazine from the U.S. newspaper Kansas City Star shows the Russian bear in one panel gleefully removing the bandages from a wounded foot labeled "Afghanistan." The next panel shows the bear painfully stepping with the same foot into a bear trap labeled "Chechnya."

New York Times writer Michael Specter concurs with that cartoon's sentiment in a commentary today in the International Herald Tribune. From the Chechen village of Novogroznensky, he writes: "There is something unusual going on (here). The most wanted men in Russia - the military and political leaders of this secessionist republic - stroll about the muddy streets as if President Boris Yeltsin had never publicly vowed to hunt them down... Russia is only going through the motions of its war here... There are as many as 40,000 Russian soldiers stationed in Chechnya... They do not want to be here; they don't want to fight; and they are eager to admit it."

Stephanie Simon wrote yesterday in the Los Angeles Times: "President Boris Yeltsin on Monday prepared a fresh effort to halt his widely despised war against the separatist republic of Chechnya. Just last month, Yeltsin had talked tough about destroying the Chechen rebels once and for all, slamming his fist into his hand as he vowed to root out the militants and flatten their hideaways. But public frustration with the costly, bloody war has swelled. Yeltsin, just one week away from announcing his re-election plans, increasingly looks ready to listen... With both his reputation and the army's on the line, Yeltsin has been signaling his intention to pull his troops out of the frustrating, embarrassing war. The head of Moscow-installed government in Chechnya predicted that Russian soldiers could begin withdrawing within three weeks."