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Press Review: Russian Elections Offer Stark Choice

Prague, June 12 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is the focus of the Western press today as commentators take a long look at the choices in this Sunday's presidential elections.

In today's Financial Times, John Thornhill examines President Boris Yeltsin's record over the past five years in an article titled "Yeltsin's Bear Has Two Faces." He writes: "Amid the blizzard of media reports about Russian economic hardships, crime, and the brutal war in Chechnya, it is easy to overlook how much Russia has changed since Yeltsin assumed power in 1991. After seven decades of flawed social engineering, Russia was a bankrupt state of empty shops, warped minds and shattered illusions." But under Yeltsin, Thornhill says, "visible signs of regeneration are now evident on Russian streets."

Thornill argues: "Mr. Yeltsin's strongest campaign message is he wants to finish his mission of turning Russia into a 'normal' country, where the individual is free to shape his own destiny, where the state serves rather than controls society." Noting the criticism of Yeltsin coming from the democratic camp, Thornhill writes: "The Janus-like face of Mr. Yeltsin's administration reflects the complex nature of the man himself. It was never likely that a man of his age, whose political reflexes had been moulded by a lifetime in the Soviet Communist party, could ever divorce himself from his past." Thornhill concludes: "Mr. Yeltsin has provided the Russian people with overwhelming evidence to doubt him. But the majority may yet conclude that an erratic, instinctively authoritarian 65-year-old former Communist is still their best hope for entering the next millenium as a normal country."

Therese Raphael, writing in today's Wall Street Journal Europe, observes: "It's hard to recall any past election characterized in such absolute terms. The outcome of the Russian presidential election this Sunday will either strengthen market-oriented democracy, or result in a detour down the path of statism, nationalism, and oligarchy. The economic platforms recently released by Russia's two presidential front-runners do nothing to discourage such stark wisdom."

She says the economic plan of the Communist Party's presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov "comes across as a messy attempt to corral into one crowded pen both the extremist, unreformed wing of the party, and its more progressive elements ... That the plan sounds more like Keynes than Lenin is small comfort."

Raphael continues: "Not that a Yeltsin II automatically means Russia's economic salvation -- or that of eager Western fund managers -- is at hand. The cornerstones of a healthy economy and polity -- democratic institutions, respect for property and contracts, and the rule of law -- require more than just fancy financing." She concludes: "Still, Russian history is sometimes read as one long, lost opportunity or, in a more positive light, as a succession of rebounds from the bad decisions of mediocre leaders. Russia will, of course, survive the outcome of the election, but it would be a shame to see the opportunities now before it squandered."

In today's New York Times, John Heilemann looks at the Communist Party's compaign tactics, most notably "the nostalgia pitch." He says Zyuganov "promises to return Russia to the good old days, when it was a great and glorious world power." Heilemann notes: "Never mind that it was also an economic wreck and a bastion of repression. The historic transition the country has embarked on -- from authoritarianism and central planning to a free-market democracy -- has proven difficult and painful, as historic transitions on this scale always are. When today hurts, romantic visions of yesterday take hold. And it's to those visions that Zyuganov is appealing."

An editorial in today's Independent from Britain begins: "Next Sunday, for only the second time in 1,000 years, Russians will choose their leader in a free election. That, in itself, is a measure of the distance Russia has travelled in terms of political culture since the nightmarish experiment of Soviet utopianism. The Independent argues that a Zyuganov victory will "be a tragedy for Russia, and a serious setback for the West."

The paper notes: "Mr. Zyuganov and his associates reek with nostalgia for the Soviet Union." But the editorial maintains: "A second term in office for Mr. Yeltsin would bring its own problems, in Russia and outside. Neither in the West nor at home is Mr. Yeltsin recognised any longer as the courageous crusader for democracy and human rights .... Russia has evolved under Mr. Yeltsin's leadership into a strange hybrid of democracy and autocracy."

The Independent concludes: "If the West is right to hope for a Yeltsin victory, it must also hope that there will be more progress during Mr. Yeltsin's second term towards consolidating democratic institutions and making Russia a law-based state ... if Russia fails, following this election, to strengthen and improve its nascent democracy, we will all suffer the consequences."

A commentary in today's French daily Liberation by the British historian Walter Laqueur looks at what's at stake in the Russian elections. He writes: "Russia is no longer a world power, but its potential remains considerable, and everything that happens in a country that has nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction must be watched closely."

Laqueur continues: "The communists are popular because they put their finger on the failures and weaknesses of western capitalism: a handful of Russians have become rich, but the majority is not able to buy the riches displayed at the houses of Gucci and Pucci, and they are not able to buy a Mercedes. There is a real nostalgia for the old times where one was able to buy the works of Pushkin or of Gogol for a few rubles."

He argues that the real danger of the communists is not in their economic program, but in their domestic and foreign policy. In his words: "Of course, they will not again occupy the republics which constituted the Soviet Union; they will not be able to reestablish the old Soviet empire in a month or even a year. But they will certainly orient themselves in that direction."

An editorial in today's Washington Post compares the upcoming Russian poll to the recent election in the Czech Republic, where the center-left opposition Social Democrats made big gains and weakened the ruling conservative coalition. It says that some analysts took the results of the Czech election as "a bad omen" for Yeltsin.

The Post argues: "The analogy is apt to this extent only: Living through a transition from failed socialism to struggling capitalism is disorienting and painful. Candidates who exploit the resulting resentments inevitably attract votes." But it notes: "The Czech Social Democrats are neither communists, as in Russia, or reformed communists, as in some other Central and East European nations."

The paper concludes: "In Russia, too, many voters would like to send a message that free-market reforms should continue but with less corruption and greater social justice. Unfortunately for them, Russia does not have the moderate opposition parties to convey such a message. The Czech Republic's 'Velvet Revolution' has been a success. The revolution in Russia, of uncertain fabric, is still underway."