Prague, 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on Russia's political situation as well as NATO's ongoing military air strikes against Yugoslavia.
Several western opinion writers are exploring the ramifications of yesterday's overwhelmingly approval by the Russian Duma of President Boris Yeltsin's choice for prime minister, Sergei Stepashin. The vote comes after a hectic week in which Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and survived an unsuccessful attempt by the Duma to launch impeachment proceedings against him.
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Only a new president will be able to revitalize the office
Stephen Jennings, co-founder and CEO of the Moscow-based investment bank Renaissance Capital, writes an opinion piece in today's "Wall Street Journal Europe" saying that Russia will not see any progress on economic reforms until Yeltsin is replaced. Jennings writes: "What does this frenetic series of events mean to the nation's fragile financial markets? Not much, since real change cannot come until the country holds presidential elections in 2000."
Jennings continues: "While Yeltsin sits on the constitutional levers of power, the country, its commerce and capital markets will remain deadlocked. Mr Yeltsin seems to thrive on crisis. He fades from the political scene for months only to emerge and explode into action, flex his atrophied muscles and launch the country again toward confrontation. This brinkmanship routine leaves the president again with the facade of control."
"However, the control Mr. Yeltsin enjoys is of a destructive kind. While he is strong enough to destabilize, he lacks the credibility or influence to actually force the parliament to support constructive policy. He is too weak to take on the banking and industrial lobbies, the ingrained and still expanding bureaucracy, or the entrenched regional authorities."
Jennings concludes: "The evening news will trumpet political crises. There may even be more government changes before the election. The ruble will surely wobble. But the only truly crucial event in Russia over the next 15 months will be the presidential elections. Only a new president will be able to revitalize the office. And only then will the new president enjoy the authority and the democratic mandate to push through the reforms essential to catalyze sustainable economic growth. Everything else is political froth."
FINANCIAL TIMES: Trying to find logical consistency in Russian politics can sometimes be hard
The unsigned "Observer" column in the "Financial Times" of London today notes the irony of 283 Duma deputies trying "to impeach Yeltsin for his conduct of the war in Chechnya" on Saturday while just "four days later, 301 MPs voted to confirm the rosy-cheeked Sergei Stepashin ... even though he was one of the leading advocates of the Chechen war." The Financial Times says: "The inspired explanation from Stepashin's corner for this bemusing state of affairs is that the former spook was only following orders when he was banging the war-drum. Besides, he was one of the very few hawks to express regret for his involvement in Chechnya. And what was the parliamentarians' account of their actions? They said it would have been far worse if Yeltsin had dissolved parliament in a fit of pique over the fate of his latest blue-eyed boy. But of course," the Financial Times concludes sarcastically. "Governments may come and go, but losing Russia's MPs would be unimaginable. Sad but true: trying to find logical consistency in Russian politics can sometimes be as hard as tracking down a sober man in Red Square on new year's eve."
LIBERATION: The vote is a marriage of reason rather than one of love
An opinion piece by Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, appearing in today's edition of the French newspaper "Liberation", says that the Russian Duma approved Stepashin because it was the most logical political step to take. Thibaudat writes: "Absolutely not having the profile of a liberal, young aggressive business-minded person like Kiriyenko or Chubais, the candidate Stepashin did not raise the slightest "nyet" from the communists -- despite their remorse about the sacking of Primakov and the defeat in their struggle to depose Yeltsin. The day after the sacking of Primakov, nobody had given much chance for Stepashin's approval. But Yeltsin knows well his former colleagues of Komsomol and the Soviet Communist Party. Yeltsin had bet that they wouldn't go as far as using their right to make realism win. The Old Man was right on that score. As soon as Saturday night, the communists made known through the voice of Duma speaker Gennedy Seleznev that the parliamentary deputies were not allergic to Stepashin, but not in love with him either. Their vote in support of Stepashin is, therefore, a marriage of reason rather than one of love."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: There is a possibility of yet another prime minister before Mr. Yeltsin's term ends
An analysis piece by Sharon LaFraniere in today's "International Herald Tribune" predicts that Stepashin may not have a lengthy tenure as the Russian prime minister. LaFraniere says: "Given Mr. Yeltsin's increasingly unpredictable behavior, several Kremlin experts did not rule out a possibility of yet another prime minister before Mr. Yeltsin's term ends a year from June. Even before Mr. Stepashin made it to Mr. Yeltsin's office to accept the president's congratulations, Duma deputies were branding his yet-to-be named cabinet as a temporary government that will preside over 'technical' details. Besides a Duma all too ready to write him off, Mr. Stepashin faces the problem of not appearing to upstage Mr. Yeltsin. Many people here believe the president dismissed Mr. Primakov because of his growing popularity and what the Kremlin saw as his independence."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Stepashin will not be adequate in the day-to-day business of ruling
Daniel Broessler writes an opinion piece in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" that also gives Stepashin little chance in bringing Russia out of its on-going economic crisis. Broessler writes: "Is there a hold on sneering laughter? Did champaign corks fly? Probably not. Boris Yeltsin is a sick man and so has probably only quietly acknowledged his biggest triumph while in office. The non-frictional vote just proves how quickly the cards can be shuffled in Moscow's political game. There is no doubt about it. Stepashin will be obliged to express patriotic rhetoric. But he will not be adequate in the day-to-day business of ruling. Stepashin will have to demonstrate whether he is capable of the complicated power play in Moscow or whether he is merely a figurehead. This will be apparent when it comes to nominating and allocating tasks to his new cabinet. At any rate the financial oligarchs who were chased by Primakov smell the morning air. Deputy premier Nikolay Aksionenko is their man. Should the threads of the economic policy lead to him then at least the Moscow financial bosses will have cause to put champaign in the fridge."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE: It is questionable whether Stepashin will bring about profound changes in economic policies
Christiane Hoffmann writes an opinion piece in today's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" that labels Stepashin as "a general with liberal friends." Hoffman writes: "Stepashin was elected because the Duma had to be sure that Yeltsin would not propose an even less acceptable candidate next time. But the chubby-faced general with a resolute voice was also elected because he is more or less acceptable to all the factions in the Duma."
But, Hoffman concludes: "It is questionable whether Stepashin will see as his main task the maintenance of calm and order in the coming year in the course of the parliamentary election campaign in December and the Presidential elections in 2000. [His other option is to] actually comply with Yeltsin's demand, expressed when he fired Primakov, to bring about profound changes in economic policies that require unpopular measures."
SUEDDEUTSCH ZEITUNG: Gone are the days when the Serbs were surprisingly united
Turning to Kosovo, Peter Muench writes an opinion piece in "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" that says Serbs are beginning to "discover reality" regarding the war that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has brought on his people through his policies of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Muench writes: "The Serbian united front is crumbling amid reports of mothers demonstrating for the return of their sons and citizens demanding democracy in Serbia. The demonstrations of a few thousand is not a threat to the Milosevic regime. But their dissatisfaction, their anger and sense of hopelessness following eight weeks of NATO bombing is intimidating. It may reflect in the mood of the country. Gone are the days when the Serbs were surprisingly united in the face of the state propaganda and an erstwhile unpopular leader."
Muench continues: "There are increasing signs that the Serbs are returning to reality after having been confused by the Kosovo myth. There is growing awareness that they are more or less isolated in the world. So hope is rising that they will at last ask their government whether it is worth it for Serbs to continue being responsible for the brutality, expulsions and unjust rule over a place that was, before the war, 90 percent inhabited by ethnic Albanians. The answer to that question is that it is not worth it. And there are actually the first indications that the government in Belgrade is looking for a way out. This is not a cause for euphoria. The Group of 8 plan is too vague, the signals from Belgrade are too diffuse and previous experience with Belgrade over peace offers has been bad. NATO and diplomats must exert further pressure. This is what is necessary to force Milosevic's regime to retreat from Kosovo."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: . Refugee camps are not a fitting place for any person, anywhere
The "International Herald Tribune" today publishes comments excerpted from remarks to be given today by Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Ogata says: "When the Berlin Wall came down, we thought that there would soon be no more mass movements of refugees in Europe, and perhaps in the world, ever again. It is sad that as the century comes to an end our wishes and hopes should be so tragically denied. Not even the Bosnian war, which forced millions to flee, compelled us to set up large refugee camps again in Europe."
She continues: "This has now happened [because of the Kosovo crisis]. After half a century of dealing with refugees, we have come back full circle to where the UNHCR started -- to Europe."
Ogata concludes that: "The European Union has become an indispensable actor on the humanitarian scene. Europe must now muster the same will to speak with one voice in the political arena. With the Kosovo crisis, it has a crucial opportunity to exert its leadership in resolving a tragic conflict through political means, and in the name of its fundamental values. And it should exert the same political and moral leadership to resolve other conflicts and other crises in the world. Refugee camps are not a fitting place for any person, anywhere."