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Press Review: The Chances For Russian Reform

Prague, Mar 1 (RFE/RL) - Russia is the focus of the papers today as Western commentators devote their attention to prospects for economic reform ahead of the June presidential election.

An editorial in today's New York Times looks at Russia's new 10.2 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Calling the loan a "calculated gamble," it says: "Markets are not well in Russia, but they are alive. With additional help from the West, they might survive." The editorial acknowledges that it might have been "preferable" to delay the loan because of President Boris Yeltsin's recent steps to distance himself from reform. But it argues: "This carefully tailored agreement is defensible." Even so, says the New York Times, "market reforms will remain fragile." The paper argues that "there are still reasons to worry about the agreement. It is far from clear that the fund has the resolve to humiliate Russia by cutting off aid if it deviates from performance targets. The fund is helping to pay for the war in Chechnya and is rewarding a government that has turned privatization...into a corrupt giveaway to friends. Russian citizens may hold the West accountable for their misery." Nevertheless, the editorial concludes: "The potential benefits of timely help, backed by strict accountability, outweigh the political risks."

The Washington Post carries an editorial this week also examining the IMF loan. It says: "Now this is the way to serve Western interests in the emergence of a new Russia. It's not to wave a flag for President Boris Yeltsin, and thereby license his political malpractice and invite resentments flowing from 'foreign interference.' It's to use the politically bland but powerful instrument of the International Monetary Fund to encourage reform and a sound economic policy." The Post writes that the idea behind the loan is "to impose a degree of discipline" that will consolidate economic reforms. But, the editorial argues: "Not all of Russia's troubles, of course, can be solved or eased by the IMF. Leadership must come from within. The terrible depredations of economic crime and corruption must somehow be rooted out." The paper continues: "It is widely suggested, with something of a collective wink, that the supposedly technical and impartial IMF is making a huge and perhaps decisive contribution to Yeltsin's re-election campaign." The editorial concludes: "But the fact remains that the IMF is imposing heavy demands on Yeltsin, and that the thrust of its program is to strengthen Russian institutions, not any one man."

In a news analysis in today's Washington Post, under the headline "Yeltsin is Down, But Not Out Yet," Lee Hockstader looks at the president's chances for re-election. He says many analysts in Russia still believe he is "the man to beat," despite polls showing him well behind the communists.

Hockstader argues: "(Yeltsin) has fashioned an electoral game plan that, coupled with some basic political arithmetic, gives him at least a plausible shot at re-election." He continues: "The first outlines of Mr. Yeltsin's blueprint for keeping his job are already clear. They include coalition-building, ending or muffling the war in Chechnya, squelching critical TV coverage and providing pay packets for the most aggrieved members of society. Add to that an image tune-up and revised message, both of which have already made their debuts, and Mr. Yeltsin looks a lot stronger than his poll numbers suggest." Hockstader maintains that Yeltsin's support in the polls, if combined with a coalition based on Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's numbers and the recent backing of reformists like Boris Fyodorov, could add up to formidable showing come June. But he concludes: "Building a coalition is only the first stage of the Yeltsin strategy. Holding it together and delivering its votes will take tangible accomplishments, or at least convincing promises."