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Press Review: Russia -- Still an Enigma

Prague, July 15 (RFE/RL) -- Russian communism collapsed in 1989. On July 3 this year, Boris Yeltsin won reelection as Russian president in what is generally regarded, both at home and in the West, as a free and fair democratic election. Yet, for many, Russia remains Winston Churchill's enigma wrapped in mystery. Western press commentators over the weekend explored the mysteries of post-election Russia.

The British newspaper Financial Times carries a commentary today by Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics. Under the title, "Personal View -- Time To Give the Bear a Hug," Layard writes: "Wooed sufficiently by the West. . . , if the (Russian people as a whole) can see a prospect of full membership of the West, their motivations will be very different from those that will drive them if they receive a brush-off. . . . This is the spirit in which we must now approach Russia. . . . If we do not move soon, nationalism will acquire its own practical logic. Positions will be taken from which it will be much more difficults for Russia to retreat. Now is the time for a Western charm offensive."

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman comments today in the International Herald Tribune: "It may be time to revive the hot line between the U.S. and Russia. Seriously. . . . For 40 years America has focused, rightly, on managing Russia's strength, but the real challenge today is managing Russia's weakness. Instread of trying to fill a fake power vacuum on Russia's border -- which only encourages a humiliated Moscow to try to recentralize power and use all its limited resources to obstruct U.S. interests -- America should nurture the real power vacuum developing inside Russia. It should flatter Russia, bring it into every world forum possible, tell it that it's doing just fine, and encourage Mr. Yeltsin to continue his reforms."

New York Times Bureau Chief Michael Specter wrote in the newspaper yesterday: "Sounding more like a hawkish military commander than the man most Russians thought would finally bring an end to the war in Chechnya, (retired General) Alexander Lebed, the new national security adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, on Saturday took a far more bellicose stance on the war there than he ever has before. . . . Lebed's remarks (in an interview) on Saturday indicate that the deeply unpopular war still may be far from over. (He) was named after the first round of the Russian elections in June as Yeltsin's national security adviser. He emerged immediately as the second most powerful man in Russia and as Yeltsin's heir apparent. But intense public scrutiny can be just as harsh in Russia as it is in the United States. Within a few days of assuming his new position, Lebed found that his blunt remarks -- about Jews in Russia, the war in Chechnya, power struggles in the Kremlin -- and his clear desire to inherit Yeltsin's job made it seem likely that he will prove troublesome for democracy in Russia, rather than be its savior."

A commentary in the current issue of the U.S. newsmagazine Newsweek says: "By winning nearly 15 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections, Lebed acquired political clout, which he used to secure his post as Yeltsin's top hand on national security matters. But now, with the president safety reelected, (Prime Minister Viktor) Chernomyrdin suddenly looks much stronger than he did last month. And a Western diplomat pointed out that the Kremlin is full of political rivals eager to "eat Lebed alive." When it became clear that he had overreached himself, Lebed retreated from his vice presidential proposal, conceding that a constitutional amendment would be required to revive the office."

Inga Saffron wrote Saturday in The Philadelphia Inquirer: "After two bus bombings in two days, Russian police braced themselves for a sustained terrorist campaign in the capital Friday, dispatching a thousand reinforcements to operate checkpoints on the main roads out of the city and to patrol the streets and subways. At the same time that Moscow police were trying to prevent further attacks on Moscow citizens, Russian forces in Chechnya were stepping up their assaults on villages in the breakaway southern region. . . . The Clinton administration, after months of giving Yeltsin kid-glove treatment to avoid damaging his re-election effort, Friday sharply criticized the decision to escalate the conflict. . . . Alexander Lebed, who took the place of the Kremlin hawks dismissed by Yeltsin, had been a vocal opponent of the war before he became Yeltsin's national security chief. He now says he is obliged to carry out the administration's policies."

In the U.S. newspaper Newsday, Sophia Kishkovsky wrote Saturday: "Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said they would crack down on terrorists, but they did not single out specific groups. Yeltsin's outspoken new national security adviser, General Aleksander Lebed, who was appointed in part because of his stand on crime, was conspicuously silent Friday. Some observers in Moscow are speculating that the explosions could mark the beginning of his political demise.

Claudia Rosett writes in today's Wall Street Journal Europe: "The (present) problem for the (Russian) Communists is that reaching toward the political center could mean alienating their radical left-wing allies, with no guarantee of winning many new voters. . . . Another problem is funding, badly depleted by (last month's) presidential race. . . . Beyond all this lies the question of whether the Communist Party itself, faced with an electoral majority that favors reform, may start to split and evolve."

A political cartoon by Mike Peters in the U.S. newspaper Dayton Daily News depicts an Elvis Presley-like Yeltsin dancing in the spotlight with a bored Russian voter saying, "Okay, Comrade Yeltsin, you won. You can STOP now."