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Press Review: Duma Vote Raises Eyebrows

Prague, March 20 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press has responded cautiously to Friday's vote in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, denouncing the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

New York Times writer Michael Specter, in a news analysis published Saturday after the vote, called the action the Duma's "most direct challenge yet to the authority of President Boris Yeltsin." Specter wrote: "The resolution has no legal significance because the parliament is weak and the president -- who called the legislation 'nonsense' -- has the ability to prevent its wishes from becoming law. Nonetheless, the measure... increased fears about what will happen if the communist leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, becomes president this summer.... The Soviet Union is unlikely to be reconstituted. Even if the Communists returned to power and sought to restore the union, there would be little support for the notion. Some former republics, most notably Belarus but also Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, are often mentioned as the most likely candidates for a new alliance with Russia. Each country has a large Russian minority, and in the case of Belarus many political leaders there have often stated that a new link with Russia is inevitable."

The analysis concluded: "The vote was purely political theater, with a telling point. The measure's passage was one more sign of the frustration that lawmakers feel at presiding over a country that is no longer great and has enormous economic and political problems."

In the U.S. newspaper Newsday, Sophia Kishkovsky wrote from Moscow, that the Duma action was "a move with virtually no legal force but one clearly calculated to up the ante in an already-heated presidential race." She wrote: "Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is President Boris N. Yeltsin's main challenger and currently the front-runner in elections scheduled for June 16. The Communists... especially revile (Yeltsin's) role in a December 1991 meeting with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus....that resulted in the formation of the current Commonwealth of Independent States.... News anchors here Friday night opened their broadcasts with sarcastic salutations directed at the communists that 'we are living in the newly restored Soviet Union.' "

The Suddeutsche Zeitung, in an editorial signed by Thomas Urban, comments today: "A few days before his first trip to Moscow as NATO Secretary General, Javier Solana wrote an article for a Russian newspaper in which he explained why NATO was still needed despite the end of the Cold War. NATO is needed as a peacekeeper. When he was writing the text he could hardly have known the Russian Duma would provide him with another argument for continuing the NATO alliance just in time for his visit to the Kremlin. A new version of the Soviet Union -- for which the communist and nationalist majority of MPs just voted -- would not just pose a threat to current NATO members, but would also incite those Central European states that have just broken out of Moscow's sphere of influence to intensify their efforts to become NATO members."

The Sudeutsche Zeitung concludes: "The Kremlin too would like to gather the former Soviet Republics under Moscow's umbrella again. The only difference is that such a move is not being dramatically described as a 'reincarnation of the USSR' as the Duma calls it. Instead the harmless-sounding language of the technocrats is being brought into play with talk of 'integration' of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In terms of economic policy this certainly makes sense, but numerous signs seem to indicate Moscow also is intending

Carol J. Williams writes today in the Los Angeles Times: "Leaders of former Soviet republics from Armenia to the Baltics vehemently denounced the Russian legislative action as aggressive, unlawful and politically disruptive. Even the Duma's colleagues from the upper house, or Federation Council, warned the communist and nationalist deputies who backed the resolution that it could undermine the credibility of Russia's new governing structures and lead to postponement of June 16 presidential elections. For a symbolic move intended to fan Russian nostalgia for the perceived glory days of the Soviet Union, last Friday's vote by the Duma to annul the 1991 agreement disbanding the old federation has spread discord among those it ostensibly aims to reunite."

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Kyiv for a one-day visit to Ukraine, condemned the Duma action. In Britain's Financial Times today, Matthew Kaminski in Kyiv and John Thornhill in Moscow write: "Mr. Christopher's comments were the strongest Western response.... Many CIS leaders have condemned the vote, suggesting it would inflame destructive nationalist forces throughout the former Soviet Union.... The three former Soviet Baltic states, which refused to join the CIS, have reacted particularly strongly to the Russian vote."

James Rupert provides this news analysis in today's Washington Post: "While the Duma resolutions are nonbinding, they have raised a wave of protest among the 14 nations that, under Soviet rule, lived effectively as colonies of Russia. From the Baltic states to Central Asia, political leaders have said the resolutions suggest that rising nationalism in Russia could lead it to assert again hegemony over the ex-Soviet republics.... The re-creation of Russian satellite states was the vision raised Friday by the Duma, acting under the leadership of the Russian Communist Party. ... Russian politicians frequently -- and sometimes comically -- have proclaimed Moscow's intention to renew its rule over lost parts of its empire. Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been one of the most vocal, laying claim to lands from Turkey to Alaska. But in the states neighboring Russia, the Duma's vote is being taken more seriously."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says today, "It is a fallback into totalitarianism that touches the interests of all the independent states of the CIS."

In France, Le Figaro said in an article from Moscow by Irina de Chikoff: "For all the Russian commentators, the electoral hunting season is open. There will be such hits below the belt in everyday life until the presidential elections in June."

In the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Alan Philps writes from Moscow: "The communists have long dreamed of a 'voluntary' reintegration of the ex-Soviet states.... The Duma vote was a political gesture and has no legislative force. Even if it did, it would not be able to revive a country which has broken up into 15 states. The move originally was shrugged off as nothing more than a stunt, with Moscow newspapers headlining tongue-in-cheek, 'We're back in the U.S.S.R." ...Mr. Zyuganov, who knows that most of his electorate is nostalgic for the U.S.S.R. and cannot understand why it broke up, defended his party's stunt. He accused Mr. Yeltsin of giving in to hysteria."