Prague, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in recent days, press commentators have touched in one fashion or another on the search for new democratic identities in their nations or regions. In Estonia, the search is a part of the campaign debate leading up to Sunday's (March 7) general elections. In Tatarstan, the question of what distinguishes this Russian republic's national character from others evokes doubts as well as affirmations. Elsewhere, there is also evidence of a quest for self-definition.
Estonian analysts touched on three issues over the past week: a warning to voters about authoritarian politicians from President Lennart Meri, the founding of a Baltic Defense College in Tartu and the larger-than-ever number of candidates for prime minister.
The daily Postimees commented (Feb. 26) on Meri's remarks, delivered on Estonia's independence day during a reception held in Tallinn's Estonia Theater. In his speech, the President warned voters against supporting authoritarian and undemocratic politicians. The paper wrote: "Although the President tried to be balanced in his speech and to illuminate problems, rather than give direct advice, his message was clear: Voters should avoid authoritarian politicians who care only about power and not about the means of achieving it.... His rule," Postimees added, "is simple --decide [who to vote for] on the basis of what people do, not on what they say."
The daily Eesti Paevaleht commented (Feb. 25) on the Baltic Defense College that was set up in Estonia's second-largest city, Tartu. The college, a joint military academy for Latvian and Lithuanian as well as Estonian officers and civil servants, was launched with the support of eight Western nations --Switzerland and seven NATO members-- which currently provide much of the college's teaching staff.
Paevaleht wrote: "The lecturers [from the Western nations] provide concentrated military know-how in Tartu that the Balts themselves could have produced perhaps in 20 years time at best, The college is a bright example of the Baltic states' interest in the integrating with Western structures, especially NATO."
The same paper wrote two days earlier (Feb. 23): "This year's choice of prime ministerial candidates is bigger than ever. In the 10 years that have passed since the country regained independence, a large number of eligible politicians have emerged, many heading different political parties, to compete for the post of PM."
Paevaleht added: "When [Center party leader] Edgar Savisaar was forced to leave [the PM's] office in January 1992, few could believe that some other person would also be suitable for the job. Yet Savissar's successor, Tiit Vahi, won wide acceptance as well. And when a young history teacher, Mart Laar, became prime minister in the Autumn of 1992, most people thought him to be unfit for the post. Yet in a few years he earned a good reputation."
The paper also remarked: "Sometimes it's said that nearly all candidates for the post of prime minister have ruined their reputations through various scandals. At the same time, though, there's no use bringing too many new people into politics. For, as in any other job, the newcomers don't have enough experience."
In neighboring Latvia last week, the daily Diena discussed (Feb. 26) the visit of the vice chairman of the Russian Federation Council, Sergei Baburin, who had been invited to Latvia by the country's Social Democrat Party. The paper noted that this was the first visit by a high-ranking Russian official since the chill in Russian-Latvian relations began just a year ago --after Latvian authorities stopped an unauthorized demonstration by Russian-speaking pensioners on a main street near Rigas City Council [in March 1998].
Earlier (Feb. 23), assessing Baburin's visit, Diena quoted him as describing a new idea that has emerged in Russia, --the necessity of forming qualitatively different relations with the former republics of the USSR. As a rule, Baburin said, these relations have to be differentiated from country to country.
The paper also cited Latvian parliamentarian --and chairman of a human-rights commission in the Saeima-- Antons Seiksts as commenting: "It was not that long ago that a map of USSR was displayed on the wall in Baburin's office, and his attitude towards Latvia was as if the Center was speaking to one of its regions.
But Diena noted, too, that during his visit Baburin declared the recent referendum on citizenship in Latvia was only the beginning of a process. The OSCE's conclusions that Latvia had met all of the organization's recommendations on citizenship were far too hasty, Baburin added.
In a commentary (Feb. 23), the daily Neatkariga said: "Mr. Baburin is preaching to Latvia and predicting a third world war." According to the paper, while meeting parliamentarians who are members of the Latvian-Russian cooperation support group in the Saeima, Baburin had announced: "If NATO military forces start activities in the Balkans, the third world war is sure to start."
On the same day, Neatkariga also carried a commentary titled, "In Russia, Latvia is honored only by radicals." In it, the paper described Baburin as a reclusive but considerate person. But the paper added that, just before his visit to Latvia, Baburin had declared: "If NATO only touches Serbia, because of Kosovo, the main thing [for Russians] will be to protect our Serbian brothers. Whether or not Russia is prepared for war is not important."
Neatkariga concluded that Baburin does not have many supporters in Russia, calling him "a wise initiator of quarrels." The paper also called him a sort of Russian "ambassador". Because of his concern for human rights and economic questions, it concluded, the purpose of Baburin's visit "was probably to investigate how strong we are and how useful we can be to Russia."
A day later (Feb. 24), Neatkariga reviewed Baburin's visits to other major Latvian cities and towns --Liepaja, Ventspils and Daugavpils. It quoted him as saying that "the [official] follow-up to the "16th of March" --last year's widely criticized march of former Latvian members of the Nazi SS during World War Two-- will be critical to the future of Latvian -Russian relations."
The Latvian press in the past week also echoed recent assessments by foreign institutions and analysts that the current Latvian government was weak and would soon fall. Diena wrote (Feb. 25) that Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans has rejected the analysis of a U.S. research group. The group's analysts had concluded that, despite the country's present economic stability, the Latvian government coalition will probably collapse.
According to Diena, the Prime Minister believes that the coalition has never been as strong as it is now. The paper says that Kristopans had taken an ironic view of the U.S. analysis, asking his staff to count how many predicted crises his government has already survived.
In Poland, the daily Rzeczpospolita said (Feb. 23) that a diplomatic row over the Government's refusal to give resident visas to Russian businessmen in Poland may be used by Moscow as an excuse to cancel a scheduled trip to Warsaw by Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The paper wrote: "There has been speculation that the issue may have been raised, and given such broad coverage [in Russian media], in order to supply an excuse for the Russian prime minister to cancel a scheduled visit to Poland early next month."
The paper went on to say: "Clearly, the issue has provided an opportunity for Russia to reiterate its dissatisfaction with the current terms of trade with Poland." It quoted Yuri Voinov, an official of Russia's Trade Ministry, as saying: "Poland has dramatically reduced the import of our coal. It does not want to enter our products into its register of licensed pharmaceuticals. Businessmen are denied visas. We have the right to take appropriate reciprocal measures. But," Voinov added, "I hope that this will not be necessary. The joint Polish-Russian [trade] commission will be meeting soon. Perhaps it will be possible to resolve the problems."
A few days later, according to Rzeczpospolita ,the Polish Embassy in Moscow conceded that the refusal to extend visas to the Russian businessmen working in Poland had been the subject of diplomatic notes exchanged between the Russian Embassy in Warsaw and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs over a month ago.
In Russia itself, the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda commented (March 2) on President Boris Yeltsin's insistence last week that Prime Minister Primakov take his planned vacation even though Yeltsin was once again back in hospital.
The paper wrote in an editorial: "If Yeltsin indeed made Primakov take a rest, there are at least three scenarios possible for this week. Number one: The government is in for a personnel reshuffle, a possibility already much discussed.. Needless to say, Primakov would not like it at all. Hence, the decision to have him somewhere safely away."
"[Scenario] number two," the paper went on, "Yeltsin is seriously thinking about replacing the Premier. Number three [scenario] --and perhaps the most probable-- Yeltsin and Primakov are truly friends, and those who thinks otherwise will probably make their move now ---if only in order to be shown their place."
Finally, in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, the daily Vechernyaya Kazan published (Feb. 23) a long, ironic commentary full of identity questions by Ruslan Tsarev. He asked: "Whom do we fight today? Can anybody tell me who currently is our potential adversary? The Germans? They have given us so much financial credits that we somehow cannot really bring ourselves to aim at them."
He continued: "How about the Yankees [Americans]? Well, they are of course self-assured boys, and bomb others immediately at the slightest pretext if something bothers them --but they've left us alone so far. And they patch up the Russian budget with their [dollars]. So why should we dig trenches against them, if they'll hand out credits any time?"
Tsarev added: "Perhaps the Japanese, who keenly feel they don't have enough room for themselves on their islands? Naturally, it's slightly cramped there, the Japanese even live on the slopes of volcanoes. But why are they worse than Ukrainians, who are ready [to got all-out to protect their ownership] of o-u-r Crimean peninsula?"
He concluded: "So whom do we fight today? Well, perhaps today, the day of the Defenders of the Fatherland, we will simply not be able to answer the question."
The daily Respublika Tatarstan carried a commentary (Feb. 23) by Vladimir. Abdulkhaeva, a senior official in the Tatarstan' Government's Council of Religious Affairs. He wrote: "We have arrived at a new stage with the a draft law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations that differs from a [Russian] federal law but doesn't contradict it." The new law. the commentator said, "takes into account Tatarstan's religious and ethnic characteristics....[Its] preamble cites the special role of Islam and Orthodoxy in Tatarstan. But it doesn't restrict the rights of other religions." This principle, Abdulkhaeva added, had been adopted by the united congress of Tatarstan's Muslims. He allowed, however, that the clause in question "has triggered some hot disputes" among other confessions.