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Western Press Review: Spotlight Shines On Russia

Prague, 28 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia rises once more to the forefront of Western press commentary, for its growing entanglement in the Caucasus and for what one contributor calls its kleptocracy -- that is, government by thievery.

Writing from Moscow, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung's Tomas Avenarius says that when NATO attacked Serbia from the air, Russia called that "cowardly aggression" -- but he says Russia is using the same tactics in Chechnya. As Avenarius puts it: "Somewhere along the line, Moscow's planners must have concluded that learning to bomb like NATO must mean learning to win like NATO." The big trouble is, Avenarius writes, that Serbia's army and infrastructure are nothing like Chechnya's mountain-dispersed refugee bands.

The Washington Post says in an editorial that some segments of Russian society are deeply angry over the settlement of the first Chechen war and what that revealed about the lack of competence of the Russian military. The Post then says this: "This new round of bombing, sadly, is far more popular. With parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote set for next year, a second Chechen war may be designed to give the illusion of power to a weakened Russian government. But the first one, as many Russians and Chechens know well, was one too many."

The German newspaper Die Welt carries a commentary by Moscow correspondent Manfred Quiring that concurs with The Post's assessment of the Russian people's mood. The Russian authorities blame a spate of terrorist bombings in Moscow on north Caucasians, and Quiring writes that this makes people feel differently about bombing Chechnya now than they felt in 1994. In the commentator's words: "This time, most Russian people are behind the army. In fact, a staggering two-thirds of Russians are in favor of deporting all Chechens from the Russian Federation."

Berlingske Tidende in Norway says this in an editorial: "From a Russian leader's standpoint, one of the advantages of the continued offensive in Chechnya is that it gives the citizenry the feeling that something is being decisively done to protect their security."

The Independent London, carries an analysis by Ann Penketh saying that Chechnya and Dagestan are only visible symptoms of a wider disease attacking Russia. In Pinketh's words: "Islamic militancy is on the rise in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, and Russia is determined to do something about it." Pinketh says that the Russian military is involved either as a supplier or security force in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. She quotes Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as saying, however, that Russia is not fighting Muslims; it is fighting terrorists.

The other dangerous malady infecting Russia, according to many critics, is economic corruption. Two Russian-oriented American business leaders write in a commentary in The New York Times that that's only part of the story. But a Russian scholar charges in a commentary that many of the charges are true, and that Russia is in danger of being ruled by a kleptocracy.

In the New York Times, Thane Gustafson and Eugene K. Lawson say in a commentary that many of the loudest critics of corruption in Russia are, in their words, "losing sight of the total picture." Gustafson is director of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of the forthcoming book Capitalism Russian-Style. Lawson is president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council and former vice chairman of the Export-Import Bank.

They write this: "Even with all the difficulties, the first decade after communism has not been a lost decade. Russia has bounced back strongly since its financial collapse last year and continues to move toward a market economy." The writers concede that the Russian economy is unstable and that much of the reason is crime and corruption. But the main problem, they contend, is an unfair, uncertain and confiscatory tax system.

Russian entrepreneurs are as offended by widespread criminality in Russia as Westerners are, or, in the commentary's words: "more so, because they can measure the costs to their own businesses and their own lives." The writers add this: "For their sake and for the sake of Russia's fragile but real democracy, it is unfair to assume that Russia has been lost."

The Times, London, publishes an extraordinary critique of crime in Russia by Sergei Karaganov, historian and secretary of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. As Karaganov puts it: "Accusations of mafia connections, massive corruption and a crime-infested political world have been hurled at Russia from abroad more than once in the last few years. We have defended ourselves as best we could. Half, or at least a third, of the accusations have been true.

Some corruption charges hurled at Russia from the United States began as political maneuvering, the writer says, and adds these words: But unfortunately, this time things are far more serious. Karaganov goes on: This time, it is not particular corporations or real or mythical mafiosi groups that will be hit. It is Russia's leadership, the Kremlin, that will suffer. And these leaders are incapable of denying the allegations.

As Karaganov puts it: I know that some decent people remain in the government and in the administration. But like most of my compatriots, I am sure that we are ruled by a kleptocracy -- an authority of thieves or of people dependent on them.

Karaganov urges prompt and massive reforms to avoid the danger that Russian will become isolated from the industrial world. In his words: We have slipped, rather quickly, from the European to the Latin American way of development. But now we face a real threat of going the African way. We hardly want to become a northern Nigeria.