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Press Review: A Look at Russia, Bosnia, and Slovakia

Prague, August 2 (RFE/RL) -- Press comment today concentrates on political and economic developments in Russia. The newspapers also look at events in Bosnia and in Slovakia.

"Wily Yeltsin cuts Lebed down to size," says Britain's London Times today. Correspondent Richard Beeston writes: "more than a month after General Aleksandr Lebed swept into the Kremlin promising to cure Rusia's ills and lead it into the next century, the fortunes of the gruff soldier have begun to dim." Beeston says that after just six weeks in the "cut-throat world of Moscow politics" Lebed has been "undermined by (Russian president Boris) Yeltsin and outmanoeuvred by his rivals" ...has "grown strangely silent" and has "so far failed to make an impact on any aspect of policy." Beeston concludes: "the consensus among Russian analysts and foreign diplomats in Moscow is that... since winning re-election, Yeltsin has neutralized General Lebed as a political force."

Lebed's literary interests catch the eye of Britain's Economist magazine (July 27 - August 2). The magazine says: "Not surprisingly, Aleksandr Lebed likes history, and the lessons he thinks he can draw from it. It is significant, perhaps, that he cites as his favorite reading the works of Sergei Platonov (1860-1933), whose 'History in the Time of Troubles,' told of the disruption of Muscovy in the aftermath of Ivan the Terrible. Platonov was fond, too, of the 'strong state'." But, the magazine continues, "most surprising, perhaps, are Lebed's foreign favorites: Somerset Maugham and, apparently at the top of his bedside list, Gerald Durrell, the zoo-keeping raconteur of animal wiles. A useful guide to life in the Kremlin snake pit?"

James Meek observes in Britain's London Guardian today that Russian labor discontent is a front-page issue this week from Moscow to the Russian Far East. He writes: "disgruntled (unpaid) builders are pushing the Russian internal debt crisis to the very center of political power by suing the Kremlin for a lavish program of presidential reconstruction work inside the fortress." And, "in the far east, hunger strikes and other protests (continue) against the non-payment of thousands of miners and energy workers." Meek says that Russia's internal debt crisis has reached a scale and complexity which now may exceed the ability of the government alone to solve by paying workers their back wages." He concludes: "even if every Russian enterprise conscientiously paid its taxes, the country would still face an enormous internal debt problem since many unpaid bills are between supposedly commercial enterprises and are not owed by the state."

The Kremlin's efforts to collect more tax revenues from the Russian middle class attract the attention of Britain's Financial Times today. Chrystia Freeland writes that "the Kremlin yesterday set itself on a collision course with Rusia's fragile middle class when it imposed a new border tax on... small-scale importers who bring cheap consumer goods into the country in suitcases or backpacks." She says: "The move, breaking a (camaign) promise by Mr. Boris Yeltsin... is part of the government's determined effort to boost the nation's low tax take." The writer continues: "the nation's biggest, richest companies are the main culprits for their failure to pay existing taxes, but the government has been reluctant to penalize its business allies." Freeland says that now, "by targeting the small-scale merchants... Moscow risks revolt by Russia's beleaguered professional classes by destroying one of the few sources of income open to them."

Turning to Bosnia: Internatinal diplomat Carl Bildt comments in Britain's Financial Times today that peacemaking there by the international community will require more than one year. Bildt, international peace coordinator for Bosnia, says: "the chances of the (September 14 Bosnia-wide) election diminishing the influence of ethnic-based politics in the three communities in Bosnia-Hercegovina are approaching zero. And if there is any change in attitudes, it is a hardening of those which have driven the country to ethnic separation and ultimately war." He continues: "One year is not enough time for the forces of healing and reconciliation to become more powerful than the forces of separation and revenge." Bildt says that he is now seeking agreement in Bosnia for "new all-Bosnia elections in 1998, thus giving the country a two-year period to consolidate the peace." He concludes: "Such a period of consolidation must in all probability be supported by (an international) military presence in the country and the region, at least initially. (After IFOR leaves) a substantially smaller but very robust force will be needed to deter those thinking in terms of war again."

Cedric Thornberry, writing in the current (August) issue of the United States-based Foreign Policy Magazine, questions whether the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague is doing enough in the aftermath of the Bosnian War to help deter future wartime human rights violations. Thornberry, former assistant secretary-general of the UN, comments: "As things stand, the trials at the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal at the Hague may be the most important proceedings since those at Nuremburg and Tokyo 50 years ago. But problems could undermine its credibility." The writer continues: "Three main questions arise from the manner in which the Hague is interpreting its mandate to bring to trial those 'persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law'." He asks: "In each criminal investigation, will the court go to the highest level of authority implicated... or are its primary targets the grisly foot soldiers of ethnic atrocity? Will senior leaders in the region... who unleashed the wars of Yugoslav succession... be charged? Finally, with the Western media's diatribes against Serbs... can the mechanism and prosecution of the trial be, and be seen to be, fair, equal, and insulated from the allies' political objectives?" Thornberry concludes: "The effectiveness of law depends not only on the certainty of enforcement. It must also be seen as equal and impartial. Or else it can be identified with ethnc revenge. And then it would encourage the whole dreadful cycle to begin again."

Slovakia attracts the attention today of the Wall Street Journal, which warns in an editorial that Slovakia's hopes of joining the European Union may be dimming due to the internal politics of Slovak President Vladimir Meciar. The paper says:"Despite a respectable macroeconomic record, Slovakia cannot aspire to EU membership so long as it remains under the increasingly authoritarian control of Mr. Meciar. EU members, whatever their individual or collective shortcomings, know that in light of Europe's checkered history, it is important to make genuine democracy a requirement for membership." The paper continues: "Mr. Meciar has made little effort to earn the West's trust and he has squandered whatever remaining claims he had to Western sympathies in the last few months. Among other steps he has tightened his party's authoritarian grip on the privatization agency, the secret service, and the media. His populist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia seems bent on consolidating its power for a 1,000 year reich." The Wall Street Journal concludes: "Vladimir Meciar and his ardent Slovakian nationalism may yet prove to be an expensive luxury for the people of his country."