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Western Press Review: Russian Turmoil Broadens

By Don Hill/Anthony Georgieff/Dora Slaba

Prague, 20 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turmoil in Russia attracted Western press commentary today and over the weekend.

LA STAMPA: This is a sad end to Yeltsin

La Stampa summarizes the trouble pessimistically with these words: "Mass terrorism, galloping corruption, ever more clashes, separatist actions of the Islamic brand, political chiefs lamed by incompetence and panic, legions from Moscow are organizing in self defense against possible assassins from gangs of Chechen origin. And all this dominated by a ghost of a president who is no longer the liberator of the early 90s, but a kind of mechanical mummy surrounded by greedy and dubious relations and groups. This is a sad end to Yeltsin."

NEW YORK TIMES: Overreaction tampers with Russia's democratic progress

The New York Times focuses in an editorial on one aspect of Russia's dilemma, a potential breakdown of human rights and rule of law. The editorial calls "alarming" reports that police officers, in the newspaper's words, are "conducting the wholesale roundup of those who look as if they come from the Caucasus region of the country." The Times observes that the United States, grown wary of providing more financial aid, still is offering help in fighting terrorism.

But, says the editorial: "Any erosion of constitutional process could also erode that support." The New York Times concludes: "The bombing deaths of so many innocent Russians are a terrible tragedy that can only be made worse by any overreaction that tampers with Russia's democratic progress."

AFTENPOSTEN: Chechens have transferred the 200-old-animosity into Russia proper

Commentator Per Egil Hegge writes in Norway's Aftenposten of reports from Russia that former General Alexander Lebed or financial Boris Berezovsky might be called back into government service to control the Chechen problem. He says, however, that what either of them could do is unclear. Lebed, who plans to run next year for president, already has condemned renewed Russian military action against Chechnya. The commentator writes that Lebed has complained that Russian leaders err in perceiving Chechnya as an ordinary region and not as a universe on its own.

Hegge observes that two of Russia's greatest poets -- Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy, both of whom had fought against the Chechens -- learned to treat the Chechens with respect, and to hold them at arm's length. The commentary concludes: "At that time, the Chechens kept their struggle confined to their own Transcaucasian areas. But now they have transferred the 200-old-animosity into Russia proper."

WASHINGTON POST: A crackdown on Chechnya will jeopardize democratic freedoms

The deputy editor of Itoga Magazine, Masha Lipman, wrote in a commentary published yesterday by The Washington Post that the average Russia harbors substantial doubt that national leaders have the will or the competence to combat terrorism. Russians have learned to cope for themselves through patience and ingenuity, she wrote. She said this: "But no amount of personal endurance, patience, resourcefulness or general optimism can protect the Russian people against terrorism. There is no hustling strategy that will work against a truck bomb. The impoverished majority and the few new rich are equally vulnerable to these blasts."

Lipman concluded with these words: "It would be good if the horror of terrorist attacks could do the seemingly impossible -- that is, make the Russian government act responsibly and effectively. And maybe the benefit of the doubt now being granted the government by the Russian people is justified. But it's more likely that a crackdown on Chechnya and "those from the Caucasus" will only result in many more lost lives, major destabilization and the instigating of the most brutal racist acts, while jeopardizing one of the precious few achievements we in Russia have a right to be proud of -- our democratic freedoms."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: Yeltsin is impotent to deal with the current crisis

German commentator Markus Wehner writes today in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Russian President Boris Yeltsin is impotent to deal with the current crisis for political as well as health reasons. Wehner writes that this is at a time when the Russian leader needs, in his words, "to be ready to act, be strong and in a position to demonstrate judgment, to endow the people again with a sense of security." The commentary adds: "The announcement of a speedy end to the military conflict in North Caucasian Dagestan is regularly followed by the humiliation of Russian troops by Islam extremists. Now the country again is threatened by rebellious Chechnya, as it seems Russia has not learned anything from the years 1994 to 1996."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The disease will worsen and infect us

In today's Wall Street Journal Europe, author Stephen Handelman (Comrade Criminal: Russia's New Mafiya, Yale University Press, 1995) comments that Russia watchers long have known of the immense financial and political power of Russia's organized crime, but they expected that the government and reform leaders eventually would assert hegemony. The writer continues as follows: "How wrong we were. Russia's Mafia godfathers now have graduated from small-time extortion and protection schemes." They have become, in his words: "world-class crime czars." He says: "They are likely to dominate 21st century transnational crime the way Microsoft dominates information technology. And these Armani-clad, computer-savvy, Russia-accented Bill Gates wannabees could not have done it without the collusion, both witting and unwitting, of governments in the East and West."

This collusion continues, Handelman charges. He ends his commentary with this: "Our continuing inability to understand and respond to the sources of Russian criminal behavior and corruption ensures that the disease will worsen and infect us."