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Western Press Review: Russia Mystifies Western Commentators

Prague, 8 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary examines recent events in Russia -- murder and politics in Saint Petersburg, illness and bluster in the Kremlin -- and declares itself even more bemused than usual.

WASHINGTON POST: Yeltsin fires anyone who suggests too openly that he is a spent force

Of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's brief foray from the hospital yesterday, The Washington Post's Daniel Williams writes in an analysis: "In an impulsive show of strength, (Yeltsin) left the hospital, returned to the Kremlin and fired four top aides. In a familiar show of weakness three hours later, he was back in the hospital to recuperate from a prolonged bout of pneumonia."

It may have been surprising, but it wasn't unusual, Williams says. He writes: "The spectacle of the ailing Yeltsin coming out of seclusion to dismiss associates has become a common event."

The writer says: "Behind the officially declared reasons for the dismissals lies an old habit of Yeltsin's -- He fires anyone who suggests too openly that he is a spent force."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: The effect of the foray was slightly spoilt

Marcus Warren, Moscow correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, London, writes that Yeltsin's infirmity nullified his show of strength. Warren' analysis says: "If the aim of the exercise was to prove he was still in charge after two weeks in hospital, the effect was slightly spoilt when he returned to his sick bed immediately afterwards."

NEW YORK TIMES: Yeltsin's illness has rendered him an asterisk in the Kremlin power structure

The New York Times carries an analysis by Moscow writer Michael Wines that says Yeltsin had been relegated to something of an asterisk in Russian affairs. Wines writes: "President Boris Yeltsin came to his Kremlin office (yesterday) just long enough to dismiss four top aides and proclaim that he is retaking control of his government's skidding tax-collection and crime-fighting agencies. Then he returned to a Moscow hospital, continuing a recovery from pneumonia that has stretched to 15 days and seemingly rendered him an asterisk in the Kremlin power structure -- at least until now."

DIE WELT: Communists have not been able to exploit the discontent

In Germany's Die Welt, Manfred Quiring suggests that the punctuation symbol for Yeltsin is a question mark. In a commentary, Quiring writes: "'Yeltsin? What's a Yeltsin?' News that the Kremlin boss could be back at his post on Monday impressed a worker at a foreign company here no more than it did the vast majority of Muscovites. But it is a joke made against a background of unease about the Russian president's obviously waning health."

The columnist says: "During his infrequent and fleeting appearances, the 67-year-old Yeltsin returns to find changes, subtle or not, in the power structure. Power has quietly been shifting away from the Kremlin to the White House, the seat of government. There, Yevgeny Primakov, a man elevated to the post of prime minister largely for the embarrassing reason that there was no other acceptable candidate, has gradually been assuming a greater leadership role."

Quiring also mentions Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov as a possible Yeltsin successor, but not Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

He says: "Observers say it is remarkable that, given the difficulties faced by millions of ordinary Russians, the Communists have not been able to exploit the discontent. (Zyuganov) can count on about 20 percent of the vote, but has not been able to raise his level of support above this level."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The purge left Yeltsin more isolated than at any other point in his presidency

Maura Reynolds writes in a Los Angeles Times analysis that Yeltsin's foray damaged him this time. She says: "The purge followed the enfeebled Yeltsin's pattern of asserting power intermittently but dramatically, and left him more isolated than at any other point in his presidency."

NEWSDAY: The show of force has strengthened Yeltsin's control over the internal power structures

In the U.S. newspaper Newsday, Michael Slackman writes from Moscow, that the show of force won't much alter government operations. Slackman writes: "From a practical standpoint, Yeltsin's action will have little effect on the operation of the government and its prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who has effectively served as the head of state during Yeltsin's illness-related absence. Internally, however, it has strengthened Yeltsin's control over the power structures, including the military and the police. He appointed as his new chief of staff General Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary of the Presidential Security Council."

WASHINGTON POST: What good are elections if elected representatives are assassinated with impunity?

Amy Knight is a research associate at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. In a commentary published by The Washington Post, she says that the Federal Security Service is corrupt and inefficient and is unlikely to solve the murder in Saint Petersburg two weeks ago of Russian reformer Galina Starovoitova. The writer asks how one can hope to build a democracy in such an environment. Knight comments: "Two weeks ago, a woman was gunned down in the entrance to her Saint Petersburg apartment building. The hail of bullets had all the earmarks of a political assassination."

Knight continues: "despite what Russian officials say is a massive manhunt, it is unlikely that those responsible for the slaying of parliamentarian Galina Starovoitova -- and the wounding of her press aide in the same attack -- will be caught soon, given who is in charge of the case. The Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the KGB's successor agencies, has a dismal record of finding the perpetrators behind what has become an epidemic of politically motivated murders in Russia."

The commentator writes: "With all its attention focused on the Russian economic crisis, the West may be underestimating how serious a threat the deterioration of law and order is to Russia's future." Knight concludes: "We cannot assume that democracy has taken root in Russia simply because there is a parliament and freedom of the press. What good are elections if elected representatives are assassinated with impunity?"

WASHINGTON POST: Heavy-handed attempts apparently backfired

In another Washington Post news analysis, Daniel Williams writes that the people of Saint Petersburg are reacting strongly to the murder. Williams says: "Riding a wave of disgust over the assassination of a popular democratic activist last month, anti-crime candidates appear to have made solid gains in city assembly elections in Saint Petersburg, despite intimidation and efforts at fraud." He says: "The vote attracted national attention because of Starovoitova's death and because it was feared that vote stealing would foreshadow fraud in next year's national parliamentary elections and the presidential election in 2000. In Saint Petersburg, at least, the heavy-handed attempts apparently backfired."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: The return of the Dzerzhinsky statue is not an occasion for mirth but rather for sadness

Commentator Aubern Waugh writes in The Daily Telegraph, London, about what he suggests is the not-quite-comical resurrection in Moscow of the reputation of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, only a few years ago vilified as the founder of the Soviet secret police and author of the terror that followed the Bolshevik revolution. Waugh says: "Many will be tempted to laugh when they hear that the Russian state Duma has voted by 239 votes to 69 to return the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky to its place of honor in Lubyanka Square, opposite the old KGB headquarters."

Waugh says it's "not an occasion for mirth but rather for sadness." He writes: "This statue was pulled down by crowds of happy young Russians in 1991, rejoicing that the age of repression was over. Now the Duma has voted to put it back, saying that Dzerzhinsky should be revered as a symbol of law and order. Their disillusionment with the free market system is partly caused by the soaring crime rate and partly by the emergence of an unsympathetic plutocracy, but chiefly because the free market does not seem to work in Russia."