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Western Press Review: Corruption In Russia, Peacekeeping For East Timor

Prague, 13 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- While the crisis in East Timor continues to elicit much analysis in the Western press, there is also considerable comment today and over the weekend on Russia's problems and prospects. Much of it focuses on the extent and importance of corruption in a country where true economic reform has yet to take firm root. There is also an appraisal of why some Central and East European nations have made more progress than others in creating a civil society and a free market.

NEW YORK TIMES: Russians must reform their system

In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times says that "despite great infusions of outside assistance and promises to carry out reforms, Russia appears to be sinking ever deeper into bankruptcy and corruption." But the paper notes: "Well before the communist era, corruption was a part of the Russian fabric. As the economist Anders Aslund points out, Russian elites in the final years of the Soviet Union were reaping fortunes, a practice that helped discredit communism in Russian eyes. It is now in the West's interest," the editorial argues, "to insure that capitalism, free markets and privatization are not similarly discredited."

The paper continues: "A separate issue relates to evidence of official corruption, possibly involving illegal diversion of thousands of millions [of dollars] in aid from the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank and other institutions... The [Clinton] Administration has already begun to shift gears and insist that a more clear accounting of international assistance be made before further loans can be granted. At the very least, the IMF needs to demand greater disclosure of what happens to its aid."

The paper allows that "it is also important to remember the progress that Russia has achieved. Although the economy has steadily contracted since 1991, Russia has 2.7 million legally registered private enterprises. Aslund and others have pointed to some signs of increased tax collections." But it concludes: "In the end, however, the Russians must reform their system [themselves]. Outside leverage cannot by itself change old habits, much less transform a culture."

WASHINGTON POST: It is crucial that cooler heads prevail

The IMF's managing director, Michel Camdessus, addresses the same problems today in a commentary in the Washington Post --but he comes to very different conclusions. He writes: "Before political passions get the better of us, it is crucial that cooler heads prevail. The IMF... has been at the center of the effort to assist the Russian people. From that vantage point, the IMF has witnessed, and learned from, the mistakes and the successes of the past decade."

Camdessus says Russia's chief economic success is attaining what he calls "a certain level of economic stability --including overcoming the threat of hyperinflation and putting in place reforms that are the foundation of a modern market economy." He says that post-communist Russia's economic setbacks --including a fall in living standards for most of its citizens-- "are not so much the failure of reforms as the effects of 70 years of central planning... and a lack of domestic political consensus on reform."

The IMF director acknowledges that "the transition from the black hole of the Soviet command economy will take years, and progress will not be linear." But he urges that the outside world not "walk away from Russia." He says" "The loss of confidence and turning inward that would result from abandoning the Russian people are in the interests of neither Russia nor the rest of the world."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The Yeltsin government may be the biggest flop in history

In the Los Angeles Times yesterday, analyst Walter Russell Mead was far more skeptical of post-communist Russia's progress. He writes: "Ten years ago, almost everything in Russia more valuable than a toaster belonged to the Soviet government; now, most of that vast stock of wealth has been 'privatized.' A better word: stolen."

But, Mead continues, "The real scandal in Russia isn't what was stolen: It is the failure of the [government of President Boris Yeltsin] to carry out even the most minimal functions of a civilized state. This pathetic excuse for a government can't collect taxes; can't administer justice; can't protect its people and businessmen from mafia thugs; can't defend its provinces from fanatical rebels; can't pay its teachers; can't feed its outlying communities; can't organize its armed forces; and can't protect public health."

Mead says further: "'Democratic reform' and 'building a market economy' is how fat-headed Western consultants and pundits describe this... long episode of incompetence and corruption. Western governments pretended to believe it; governments, private foundations, the IMF and the World Bank pumped thousands of millions of dollars into Russia. Much of it now seems to be turning up again in the West, laundered through institutions like the Bank of New York or placed offshore by the Russian Central Bank, which then lied about it to the IMF. In fact," Mead concludes, "the Yeltsin government [may be] the biggest flop in history."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Lasting reform is not possible without the rule of law

The Wall Street Journal-Europe today carries a commentary by analyst Mark Brzezinski that seeks to explain why the post-communist experiences of Central and East European nations have been so "highly mixed." He writes that economic and political reforms have been largely successful in Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary, "while reform in Bulgaria and Romania remains problematic." As for Russia and most of the other nations that used to make up the Soviet Union, he says they are "in a state of continuing crisis."

The discrepancies, Brzezinski goes on, are due in part to the different nations' historical starting points. But, he says, "the past 10 years has shown us that the varying degrees of success in Central and Eastern Europe are not merely accidents of history." They show, first, that "lasting reform is not possible without the rule of law." Democracies are not only about elections, but depend on, in his words, "the assurance that laws are above politics."

Second, Brzezinski says, the area's mixed record demonstrates that "non-democratic leaders are ill-suited to building democracies." He cites Czech President Vaclav Havel, former Polish president Lech Walesa and Hungarian President Arpad Goncz as true democrats. But in the Commonwealth of Independent States, by contrast, "former oppressors became the new leadership," he says. Belarus's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov are examples of leaders who basically opposed dismantling the communist system.

All of this, Brzezinski concludes, suggests two conclusions: "First, nations lacking the rule of law will have no incentive to make changes unless the West makes assistance conditional [on true democratic reform]. Second, direct injections of cash into the coffers of corrupt elites only perpetuates the worst characteristics of these post-communist systems. Instead, Western assistance should focus on 'bottom up reform,' teaching the next generation of leaders how [democracy works]."

WASHINGTON POST: The peacekeeping force should put into effect the results of the referendum

Turning to East Timor, an editorial in today's Washington Post asks "whether a break in the slaughter is now a live prospect as a result of the decision announced yesterday by Indonesian President B. J. Habibie [to invite] the United Nations to send in an international peacekeeping force of 'friendly' nations." The peacekeeping force, the paper says, "should aim to protect the population of East Timor, to restore security and order there and --of highest importance-- to put into effect the results of the referendum of August 30. In that balloting, an overwhelming 80 percent of the electorate opted for independence from Indonesia, which invaded, terrorized and annexed the former longtime Portuguese colony 25 years ago."

The Post is not sure "whether President Habibie is in a position to enforce his decision on the Indonesian army, which is [either] the author or the co-conspirator, with the local militias, of the ravaging of East Timor in and after the referendum two weeks ago." And the paper asks: "Could it be that his announcement yesterday was calculated by him, or will be exploited by hyper-nationalist elements in the armed forces, to justify a strategy of delayed and limited implementation?" The editorial adds: "The vagueness and equivocation about peacekeepers that marked the remarks of General Wiranto, chief of the armed forces, can only feed the general suspicion about his political intentions in this crisis. [Wiranto's] murderous conduct in East Timor has cost him any claim to the slightest confidence either of the East Timorese or of the international players."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Armed intervention is the only answer for East Timor

In the International Herald Tribune today, East Timorese independence leader and Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos Horta declares that immediate "armed intervention is the only answer for East Timor." Ramos Horta says: "Now the [Indonesian] military wants to rid East Timor of its stubborn people and create conditions inside the territory in which tens of thousands of displaced civilians may die unless they receive food and medicine in the next few days. This," he adds, "is genocide by any definition."

Ramos-Horta explains that the armed intervention he seeks should be "preceded by immediate emergency airdrops of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies... At the same time," he says, "a total arms embargo against Indonesia must be applied [and] all bilateral and multilateral assistance to [Jakarta] must be frozen."

He writes further: "Indonesians cannot go on displaying their parochial nationalism and pretend to be offended by calls from the West and elsewhere for foreign peacekeepers under a UN mandate to enter East Timor, when they do not [even] condemn their army's slaughter of the East Timorese."