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An Electrician Reports for Work; The Conflict In Chechnya

By Donald Hill

Prague, April 2 (RFE/RL) - The image of a famous former president returning to work as a shipyard electrician captured the attention of press commentators. The press continued to ruminate also on Boris Yeltsin's afterthoughts about the bloody Chechen conflict.

The Wall Street Journal Europe today carries an article by Daniel Michaels and Neil Bowdler. They write: "Lech Walesa today returns to the Gdansk Shipyard workbench from which he changed Polish history. But most shipyard employees and local residents couldn't care less. With the 7,300-employee yard now under threat of bankruptcy, they're worried about the future and job losses, not the past and Mr. Walesa's battle against communism."

Tom Hundley writes today in the Chicago Tribune: "Poland's Gdansk shipyard (yesterday) was awaiting the return of its famously unemployed electrician, former President Lech Walesa, who said he would return to his old job because he needs the paycheck. Walesa, always a master of the dramatic gesture, is at it again. He hopes that by going back to work he can shame the Polish Parliament, now under the control of the reformed communists, into giving him a pension.... At the shipyard, Walesa would earn about one dollar and forty cents an hour for a 45-hour week. Until now, he has been listed on company rolls as being on "unpaid leave." ...His promised return (today) -- and many in Poland were betting it was a bluff -- would be as an electrician repairing electric vehicles and fork-lifts in a drafty, dimly-lit brick building."

The German newspaper Die Welt said yesterday in an editorial signed by Andrea Wildhagen: " 'Gdansk shipyard has to call in receivers.' ...In the early 1980s the Gdansk shipyard witnessed the first hairline rift in the steel shell of communism.... It ushered in the fall of the communist government in Poland and the collapse of East Germany and the entire East Bloc, including the Soviet Union.... A few weeks ago the former Polish president, Lech Walesa, brought the legendary shipyard back into the headlines. Deeply disappointed at having been voted out of office as head of state, Walesa defiantly announced that he would be going back to the shipyard to work as an electrician."

Jane Perlez wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "Under the Communists, (Gdansk) and its shipyard served as the fulcrum of opposition, the center of defiance. Now the city thrives, but the shipyard is on the verge of bankruptcy and stands, dispirited, as an emblem of decline. In the coming months at least 2,000 employees will be laid off, and half of the sprawling site of antiquated cranes, dank workshops and shaky overhead bridges will be closed.... In contrast to the dismal record in Gdansk, the Szczecin shipyard 150 miles to the west has flourished in the last five years. There decisive management transferred ownership of the yard to a private consortium and laid off redundant workers.... At Gdansk it takes six months to build the kind of ship that takes only two months at Szczecin. Even though the shipyard's most famous worker, Lech Walesa, became president on a platform of market reform, socialist management methods prevailed at Gdansk."

Britain's Financial Times calls the Chechen conflict "Yeltsin's Vietnam" in an editorial today. The Times says: "On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam and offered peace talks 'any place, any time.' Boris Yeltsin is unlikely to have had this precedent in mind when he chose the same date to announce his peace plan for Chechnya. Unlike Johnson, he did not seek to give credibility to his offer by announcing that he would not stand for reelection. On the contrary, Mr. Yeltsin's peace plan is transparently aimed at securing his reelection."

"President Yeltsin's peace plan for Chechnya is a sickly child," Alan Philps writes in a news analysis in today's The Daily Telegraph in Britain. Philps continues: "(It was) conceived in the cynical atmosphere of the Russian presidential election campaign and surrounded by enemies waiting to stifle it.... Russian politicians lined up to declare the peace plan too late to solve the crisis and too clearly linked to Mr. Yeltsin's campaign for the June elections."

The New York Times says today in an editorial: "Yeltsin is not the first political leader to discover that it is harder to end a war then to start one, but he is fast learning that painful lesson in Chechnya.... As he lunges toward an exit, Yeltsin shows little sign that he recognizes the mistakes that brought him to this juncture.... Like Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, Yeltsin badly misread the intensity of ethnic nationalism in Russia and its environs...The use of indiscriminate force against the rebels, though, was a clumsy response to the threat. Moscow's brutal military campaign succeeded only in hardening the Chechen resistance."

An editorial today in The Frankfurter Rundschau signed by Karl Grobe says: "What Boris Yeltsin begged for on Sunday he could have had a war earlier.... The Russian president has not even been given a hearing by his own appointees. Doku Zavgayev, the Chechen president appointed by Moscow, doubts whether Yeltsin's motives are honorable, while all that the Russian commander-in-chief, Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, is prepared to discuss with the 'rebels' is where they are to lay down their arms....Those who see it as a harbinger of peace, as the chorus of Yeltsin fan clubs do, either are suffering from a mixture of Red cynicism and total cluelessness or are deliberately painting too bright and cheerful a picture in support of Yeltsin's presidential election campaign."

Lee Hockstader writes today in The Washington Post: "Fighting eased but the dying apparently did not stop in the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya (yesterday) after President Boris Yeltsin ordered a unilateral ceasefire and political steps to end the 15-month-old conflict there. In Moscow, reaction to Yeltsin's peace plan was mixed but tended toward skepticism. Most of the president's adversaries, as well as neutral analysts, regarded his proposal more as a political gambit 11 weeks ahead of June's presidential elections than as a serious attempt to resolve the conflict -- the bloodiest, in terms of Russians killed, since World War II."