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Western Press Review: Kosovo Dilemma And Russian Developments

Prague, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's growing dilemma over how to bring a decisive conclusion to the conflict with Yugoslavia arouses much press interest today. Other comment focuses on Russia's internal political situation.

FINANCIAL TIMES: The alliance must now choose

After more than 50 days of alliance bombing there is no clear sign that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is about to bow to the demands of the international community and reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. London's "Financial Times" argues in an editorial that it is becoming clear to most people that aerial bombing alone is not working. It says:

"NATO still contests this. It admits the politics of the war have not been going right, with its bombs falling on civilians and Chinese diplomats, and with Russia's internal [problems] disrupting that country's mediation efforts. But the alliance claims the bombing is only now getting into full swing and is sure to produce results soon."

The FT continues: "It is hard to be so sanguine any more. The combination of military stalemate and diplomatic drift requires NATO to consider new means of bringing the conflict to an end. The alliance must now choose between escalating its military effort by preparing for a ground invasion of Kosovo [or] intensifying its search for a political settlement."

The editorial argues that if the alliance wants to move in ground troops, it will have to act soon. The paper continues: "The window of opportunity is closing fast: unless NATO begins within weeks a rapid deployment of extra troops, the weather will turn against it. The Kosovar refugees would then face the awful prospect of a Balkan winter without the hope of return to what remains of their homes."

INDEPENDENT: Blair is left isolated as a "hawk without wings"

Britain's Independent carries an editorial which, like the FT, cites Washington's apparent reluctance to commit ground troops. It says that something "strange" is happening in the politics of this war. It says British Prime Minister Tony Blair had previously appeared to be acting as an "outrider" for Clinton, by giving a lead to international and American opinion in an effort to make the deployment of ground troops possible. But it sees the U.S. reluctance to commit these troops as having hardened, leaving Blair isolated as a "hawk without wings".

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Any messy compromise would be widely and accurately perceived as a defeat

Britain's conservative "Daily Telegraph" carries a commentary by Sion Simon which also takes the line that nobody now believes victory is possible without committing ground troops. It notes that Britain has emerged as the leading "hawk" in the case for ground troops, and that British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook will visit Washington this week to try to persuade the Clinton administration not to leave "the job half done".

Simon writes: "The main thrust of the British attack on American isolationism will be the combined carrot and stick of the Clinton legacy. It will argue that any messy compromise would be widely and accurately perceived as a defeat".

NEW YORK TIMES: There is a consensus that Milosevic has the political room to maneuver

While these British commentaries press for NATO ground troops, an article in the "New York Times" by Steven Erlanger talks of a diplomatic end. He writes from Belgrade that Yugoslav officials and analysts are convinced that Milosevic is prepared for a settlement, "so long as the process can be portrayed as negotiation and not capitulation".

Erlanger continues: "There is a consensus that Milosevic has the political room to maneuver over Kosovo and to redefine almost any negotiated outcome as a victory to preserve his own grip on power".

Milosevic is described as frustrated by the slow pace of the mediation effort by the Russian special envoy, Victor Chernomyrdin.

The article continues: "Yugoslav officials regard the chaos in Russia as a more serious obstacle to peace than the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, because they believe that Beijing will not veto any proposal agreed upon by Moscow and Washington."

LE MONDE: Time for diplomacy has come

The French daily "Le Monde" also looks at the opportunities for ending the conflict through diplomacy. It writes: "The war in Kosovo is at a turning point. A new phase is beginning, an even more dangerous phase for civilians, as the drama of [the civilian deaths] at Korisa shows."

"But," the paper continues, "at the same time diplomacy seems to be making progress. That's because nobody on either side now believes they can win. Slobodan Milosevic knows there is a limit to his ability to resist NATO. Here and there Serbian public opinion begins to wobble. NATO knows there is a limit to what it can achieve with this badly-planned air war: also in its case, mistakes can lead to a change in public opinion. The state of the war paradoxically appears to show therefore that the time for diplomacy has come".

The western press also focuses on political developments in Russia after the failure of the communist-led opposition in the State Duma at the weekend to begin an impeachment process against President Boris Yeltsin.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The old man in the Kremlin stands once again as the winner

In a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung", entitled "Yeltsin, a Victor Without A Future", Tomas Avenarius writes that for months the Russian communists and nationalists had been threatening to throw Yeltsin out of office. He writes: "The Damocles sword of impeachment hung day and night above the Kremlin chief, who is weakened with age. The opposition could daily win points with an increasingly critical public against a stricken president who appeared to count for less and less, and upon whom all of Russia's troubles could be hung.

"And now this: the impeachment failed in all of its five points. The old man in the Kremlin stands once again as the winner. The communists and nationalists are embarrassed...."

Avenarius continues: "A victory for Yeltsin. A fiasco for the communists. Perhaps even a victory for common sense? Wait a while. The next big day of battle will soon be at hand. By Wednesday there must be voting [in parliament] on Yeltsin's nominee for the post of head of government [Sergei Stepashin]".

BOSTON GLOBE: Saturday's vote laid bare the deep divisions in Russian society

Writing in the "Boston Globe", David Filipov says Yeltsin has won the impeachment battle, but that Russia's political crisis shows no signs of easing. He writes: "Yeltsin faces a new showdown with parliament this week after outraging lawmakers by dismissing the popular prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

"And in a potential sign of new health woes for the aging president, whose penchant for erratic public behavior has grown in recent weeks, Yeltsin made a surprise hospital visit Saturday that the Kremlin described as a 'routine planned checkup' that just happened to be scheduled for the day of the impeachment vote."

Filipov continues: "Saturday's vote laid bare the deep divisions in Russian society. Although Yeltsin is universally disliked - the approval rating of Russia's first popularly elected leader has diminished to 2 percent - some Russians believe the democratic and market transformation he began are moves in the right direction, no matter how flawed the results so far.

"But a much larger number, represented by the Communists and their allies in the Duma, believe that Yeltsin's policies have been a cynical and corrupt exercise aimed at destroying the country. As life for most Russians gets worse, this split could widen and drastically affect the results of planned December parliamentary elections."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: If the Duma confirms Stepashin, Yeltsin will have outplayed his enemies

Markus Warren of the "Daily Telegraph", writing from Moscow, sees things more optimistically for Yeltsin and Stepashin, at least in the short term. He writes: "Humiliated after Saturday's attempts to impeach the Russian leader, the opposition hinted that it might approve his choice of prime minister. Sergei Stepashin, a Yeltsin loyalist and former interior minister, spent the weekend canvassing support from regional chiefs and promised there would be no 'odious figures' -- meaning economic liberals -- in his cabinet....

Warren writes that: "If the Duma now goes on to confirm Mr. Stepashin as prime minister on the first or second attempt, Mr. Yeltsin will have comprehensively outplayed his enemies and proved the critics wrong."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Yeltsin thrust the nation into a perilous period of constitutional limbo

In an article appearing in the "Los Angeles Times", Richard C. Paddock writes that although Yeltsin escaped impeachment over the weekend, Russia faces another threat to its political stability, this time brought on by its flawed constitution and the president himself.

Paddock writes: "By firing Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov last week, Yeltsin thrust the nation into a brief but perilous period of constitutional limbo in which no one is designated to succeed the president if he should die or become incapacitated.

"Under Russia's constitution, the prime minister would become acting president if Yeltsin could no longer serve. But if the president died now, when parliament has not confirmed a new prime minister, there is no law spelling out who would take charge."

Paddock continues: "With Primakov gone, it could take anywhere from a few days to a month before a new prime minister is installed. The untimely death of the 68-year-old Yeltsin - who has been in fragile health for years - could spark a violent battle for power with serious consequences for Russia and the entire world."

Paddock goes on to ask: "Who would command the army at such a time? Russia's constitution does not say. Who would control Russia's nuclear button? Who would have the authority to issue decrees, fire Cabinet ministers or declare martial law? The constitution is silent."