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Western Press Review: What's next for Belarus and Bulgaria?

Prague, 14 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Newspaper comment today focuses on Russian President Boris Yeltsin's proposal that Belarus and Russia consider holding a referendum on unification. The papers also look at continuing unrest in Bulgaria and the prospects that the ruling Socialists and opposition parties there might find room to compromise.

A Russian/Belarusian Referendum

FINANCIAL TIMES: Yeltsin raises the diplomatic stakes

John Thornhill writes today that President Boris Yeltsin's letter yesterday raised "the diplomatic stakes in the struggle to reshape Europe's security structure." He says that western diplomats believe that the move could be less motivated by desire to unify Russia with Belarus than by Moscow's desire to acquire a bargaining chip in ongoing discussions with NATO about the Atlantic Alliance's expansion eastward. Moscow is seeking to slow or stop NATO's announced plans to embrace new members in Central Europe which were once tied militarily to the Soviet Union. Thornhill concludes that "inclusion of Belarus in a greater Russia would worry NATO because it would raise the possibility of more Russian troops on the border with Poland -- likely to be among the first wave of new NATO members -- creating a new iron curtain in Europe."

THE LONDON INDEPENDENT: More problems for East/West relations

Phil Reeves writes today that "Russia's increasingly bad-tempered relationship with the West (was) soured further yesterday when Boris Yeltsin revealed his latest ploy to foil NATO expansion." He continues: "it (is) clear the letter (is) intended to be seen as part of Russia's counter-offensive against NATO's proposals to expand in Eastern Europe, initially into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary." Reeves concludes: "the maneuver is yet another example of Russia's hostile policy toward the West and will stoke up the ill feeling that has recently surfaced on several other fronts -- notably, over Moscow's willingness to sell arms to Cyprus, squabbles over spying, and Russian threats to impose economic sanctions against Estonia."

GUARDIAN: Is Moscow ready to unify with Belarus?

David Hearst, wonders whether Moscow is really ready to unify with Belarus if the West refuses to bargain over NATO's expansion plans. He notes that until now Moscow has "resisted unification with Belarus on economic grounds," fearing its tiny neighbor's shattered economy would add to Russian inflation and unemployment. Now he observes, Moscow seems ready to throw its previous caution to the wind and is raising hopes in Belarus and among Russian nationalists that could be hard to stop. He notes that unification is popular in Belarus "especially with the depressed rural population who never considered themselves ethnically different from the Russians" and that "the Russian military would welcome unification." Reeves concludes that if "the long-discusses reunification idea is intended (only) as a shot across NATO's bows ....the Russian government might hate to have its bluff called."


LeFIGARO: Opposition may get what they want

Today's commentary suggests that opposition demonstrators may be winning their struggle to force the government to negotiate on holding early elections. Correspondent Jean-Paul Rustan observes that the executive committee of the "ex-Communist ruling party (the Socialists) yesterday formally accepted the principle of early elections" but "the opposition insists on a precise date and will continue to demonstrate until it receives one." Rustan says that the collapsed Bulgarian economy has left protesters with no choice but to insist on a chance to change governments. He writes: "Bulgaria was once the best student of the Soviet Block and has since become the worst-in-the-class in Eastern Europe." (Its) transition to a market economy ... is a failure which has brought the Bulgarians only an overabundance of poverty, corruption, and criminal activity. Now the opposition is in the streets carrying along with it everyone (Bulgaria's long) crisis has robbed of hope."

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Political dialogue may be possible

Today's editorial suggests that "Bulgarians ... have taken to the streets to try to remove a government that is one of the most inept in Europe (and) the strategy may be working." The paper says that the ruling Socialists' response to the opposition early-election demands yesterday "suggests that a political dialogue may be possible in a country where inflexibility has been the rule." The editorial says the Socialists must work with the opposition because "the Socialists have neither the commitment ... nor the public trust needed" to carry out the reforms needed to give Bulgaria a working market economy. It concludes: "both sides should treat the government's statements as the opening of serious negotiations. This will require the government and the opposition to abandon their rigidity and work toward elections at the earliest possible date."

GUARDIAN: Bulgarian opposition following in the steps of that in Serbia

Several analysts today draw parallels between the opposition street demonstrations in Sofia and in Belgrade. Julian Borger, catches the mood among the analysts best when he writes that the Bulgarian opposition is following in the steps of that in Serbia, only going faster. He writes: "after opposition demonstrators stormed through the doors of Bulgaria's Parliament on Friday, a slogan circulated for a while claiming 'the Serbs took 50 days, we did it in five hours'." He continues: "it may have been an over-optimistic rallying cry for both the Belgrade and Sofia governments appear to have some fight left in them." But Borger concludes: "the feeling on the streets in both capitals is unmistakable. The crowds sense they are taking part in a final push to rid Eastern Europe of its last hard-line former Communist regimes."