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Western Press Review: Chechen War, Indonesian Elections

Prague, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's intensification of its war in the breakaway Caucasian republic of Chechnya is drawing increasing attention in the Western press. There is also continuing comment today on the results of this week's presidential and vice-presidential elections in Indonesia.

NEW YORK TIMES: This war will paint a portrait of the new Russia that looks ominously like the old

The New York Times calls yesterday's bombing of a marketplace and maternity hospital in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, "gruesome." Today, Moscow admitted it was responsible for the bombing, saying that the market was a legitimate target because weapons were being sold there.

The NYT's editorial calls the incident "the latest tragedy in what is becoming Russia's second full-blown war with Chechnya since the end of the Soviet era." The paper says further: "The first war, which began five years ago, was a disaster for both tiny Chechnya and gigantic Russia, with Chechnya left charred and angry while the Russian military was humiliated by its own incompetence. The second war will not only devastate Chechnya. It will also paint a portrait of the new Russia that looks ominously like the old."

The editorial goes on: "[Russian] bombs caused more than 100 deaths and 400 injuries in Grozny [yesterday]. Planes believed to be Russian were spotted overhead, and Russian troops have been moving steadily closer to Chechnya's war-torn capital city. ... [Their] generals now seem determined to win a war with the small Caucasian republic."

It adds: "One major difference is that, because [of recent apartment-house bombings in Moscow and elsewhere which killed 300 and were blamed on Chechen-based Islamic militants], today's Chechen conflict is far more popular in Russia than the previous one. Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, flew triumphantly over Chechnya this week." The paper concludes: "Putin, undoubtedly in the running to replace [President] Boris Yeltsin [next June], is riding this popular war, but his support could evaporate quickly if Russian troops once again start returning home in body bags. Even if Russians fare better on their second try, the greater damage could be to Russia's international reputation."

GUARDIAN: Russian officials unanimous approach to storming Grozny appeared to dissolve yesterday

Three news analyses in the British and U.S. press also assess yesterday's carnage in Grozny and Russia's overall military strategy in Chechnya. Writing from Moscow in the British daily The Guardian, correspondent Amelia Gentleman says: "The source of the explosion was not immediately clear. One witness said that three missiles were dropped by planes on the marketplace .... Another said the blast ... was caused by .... missiles fired by Russian [ground] troops."

The analysis continues: "Russian officials have been denying for weeks that storming Grozny would be the next stage in their campaign. ... But their unanimous approach to this question appeared to dissolve yesterday. Nikolai Koshman, the Moscow-appointed administrator of Chechnya's Russian-held areas, claimed Moscow intended to seize the region around Grozny. .... Putin admitted he had yet to decide whether troops would try to storm Grozny [while] Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov [commented] that there were no plans for a massive land assault on Grozny."

Gentleman continues: "According to information leaked to the daily newspaper 'Segodnya,' Yeltsin refused his hawkish generals permission to push into Grozny." In any case, her analysis notes, "Russian troops are [now] so close to the capital that Chechen fighters in the north of the city are able to watch them performing drills and morning exercises."

WASHINGTON POST: Putin was concerned that Russia was losing the information war

In the Washington Post, Moscow correspondent Daniel Williams writes: "More than 150,000 Chechens, at least 15 percent of the population, have fled the republic in recent weeks. Thousands of others left Grozny for the countryside. The popularity of Putin, a declared presidential hopeful, has soared since he launched the offensive on a pledge to wipe out the 'terrorists and bandits' in Chechnya."

"In recent days," Williams's analysis says, "Putin expressed concern that Russia was losing the information war because of publicity given to the massive outflow of refugees from Chechnya and the reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilians. At a news conference Wednesday, he claimed that the Chechens themselves were organizing the refugee exodus to 'make the situation look worse' and 'give the world the impression of a humanitarian catastrophe.' He said that Russia would not target Chechen civilians because they are citizens of the Russian Federation."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Russian forces have changed their strategy

In the Los Angeles Times today, Mayerbek Nunayev and Richard Paddock write from Grozny: "In [the capital], residents were quick to conclude that yesterday's attack was intended to force the remaining civilians to flee the capital ahead of advancing Russian troops. Already, more than 177,000 refugees have escaped to Dagestan and another neighboring Russian republic, Ingushetia."

Their analysis continues: "In their latest attempt to pacify Chechnya, Russian forces have changed their strategy and moved much more cautiously than they did nearly five years ago, when inexperienced troops attempted to storm Grozny and were slaughtered wholesale by rebel fighters. This time, the Russian forces are in no hurry to reach the capital and are attempting to build a base of public support in the occupied zone. This week, for example, busloads of refugees began returning to villages in northern Chechnya and the federal government began paying its workers' salaries there for the first time in three years."

"At the same time," the analysis says, "Russian planes have been conducting airstrikes almost daily in an attempt to weaken Islamic rebels based in central and southern Chechnya. Russian officials say they are using precision weapons that have minimized civilian casualties. Chechen officials say hundreds of civilians have been killed in the air raids."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Indonesia has bought itself some time and breathing space

Now that Indonesia has elected both a new president and a vice president, commentators are busy assessing the results. The Wall Street Journal Europe today writes: "With the election [yesterday] of Megawati Sukarnoputri as vice president, Indonesia seems to have gotten as close as it could under the circumstances to a broad-based government. Ms. Megawati, new President Abdurrahman Wahid and People's Consultative Assembly speaker Amien Rais represent the top three pro-democracy parties to emerge from June's historic [parliamentary] elections."

The WSJ comments: "Sounds just like what Indonesia needs at the moment." Through these elections, Indonesia has bought itself, in the Journal's words, "some time and breathing space." The paper goes on: "President Wahid is a respected cleric who has championed both democracy and religious tolerance. His presence ... threatens no-one at this stage, [which] is important because it suggests that as long as [he] is on the scene, politicians from other parties have an opportunity to [learn] the business of government without worrying about some rival securing the top spot."

The WSJ also says: "A fairly inclusive government may be useful for Indonesia now. By reducing the number of people on the outside, you reduce the number of people who will be tempted to use the blunt instrument of riots to advance their own political agenda." It concludes: "A great many [Indonesians now] have someone they support or voted for sitting in high office. That may give the new government extra time or leeway to make good on its promises, or at least begin to. ... Democracy has prevailed, once again demonstrating the power of free and honest elections. Now it must be respected and protected."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Now everybody has a piece of the cake

Andreas Baenziger in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung concurs with the WSJ's judgment, saying that, after the Indonesian elections, "now everybody has a piece of the cake." Commenting from Singapore, Baenziger writes: "The verdict is clear: Indonesia has decided on a change and for a break with the Suharto past. It has opted for reform and for democracy."

He continues: "[President] Wahid ... never allowed himself to be dominated by the dictator Suharto, even if he did have to compromise on occasion, just like everybody did. In June, Megawati received 35 percent of the vote because, as the daughter of the founder of the state who was deposed by Suharto, she became a symbol of a desire to turn away from the old ways. The People's Consultative Assembly has now gone along with people's wishes."

"But that," he adds, "did not happen automatically. If [former President B.J.] Habibie ... had not withdrawn his candidacy just hours before the vote, there would have been a painful confrontation between supporters of reform and backers of the status quo. ... But now two reformers [Wahid and Megawati] who have nothing more to do with the Suharto era are at the head of Indonesia. Both want a secular, lay state. Both ... are respected and even loved, but Wahid is half-blind and weakened by two strokes, while Megawati -- although she has inherited her father's name -- has not inherited his political acumen." He sums up: "After the election, the tough business of democratization begins in earnest. Two tasks have priority: to clean up the armed forces and the economy."

AFTENPOSTEN: Wahid can become a unifying figure if he is given the chance by the military

In Norway, the daily Aftenposten take a somewhat different view. The paper writes in its editorial: "Wahid certainly understands that he must have the support of the army, because General Wiranto, its leader, is lurking in the wings. The Indonesian army has been accused of supporting the paramilitary militias in East Timor, which have committed many acts of terror against the civilian population there. At the same time, the Indonesian Parliament has officially acknowledged the right of East Timor to independence after 24 years of occupation. But this 'loss' is unlikely to be received in good humor by the military."

Aftenposten sums up: "Abdurrahman Wahid can become a unifying figure in an Indonesia torn by ethnic, religious and economic conflicts. He can, that is, if he is given the chance by the military."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)