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Western Press Review: Commentary Spotlights Russia

Prague, 14 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian parliamentary elections next Sunday and President Boris Yeltsin's travels turn the Western press spotlight back onto Russia.

NEW YORK TIMES: The new Duma may look very much like the old one

The New York Times finds it positive that there are any elections at all in Russia, but predicts little change in the nation's governance. The Times says in an editorial: "When Russians elect a new parliament on Sunday, they will be exercising a right long denied them under Communist rule. That itself is the greatest achievement of Russia's young democracy. Voters will choose among more than 20 political parties and 6,700 candidates for the 450-seat lower house, or Duma."

The editorial says, referring to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, that the election, in the newspaper's words: "also has aroused destructive forces that threaten to undermine Russia's political progress." As The New York Times puts it: "The last-minute attempts to use the new Russian assault on Chechnya for political gain is disturbing."

The editorial concludes that little evidently will change, and that's not good. The editorial says this: "If opinion polls prove correct, the new Duma may look very much like the old one, dominated by Communists and nationalists. That will not advance the cause of economic and political reform, nor help the Kremlin improve relations with the West."

FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU: Russia, is caught in a twilight of which President Yeltsin's condition can serve as a metaphor

Frankfurter Rundschau commentator Karl Grobe examines Yeltsin's trip to Bejing last week, especially Yeltsin's blunt public remarks reminding the United States that Russia still possesses a nuclear threat. The commentator doesn't like what he finds.

In Grobe's words: "Relations with China clearly rank high on the list of political issues that Boris Yeltsin, Russia's seriously ailing head of state, is still capable of comprehending intellectually. Territorial integrity, no intervention in domestic affairs and combating separatism constitute a fundamental common vocabulary that promptly reappears in the Sino-Russian communique."

The writer says that the Chinese are realistic about where the limits of their powers lie. Not so, Yeltsin's Russia, he says. As the Frankfurter Rundschau's columnist puts it: "Russia, in contrast, is caught in a twilight of which President Yeltsin's condition can serve as a metaphor. Yeltsin's Beijing outbreak -- his reference to the nuclear card -- shows how much his country's decline must hurt him and how little it has been rationally understood. That is probably true of the entire Russian leadership. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's prompt verbal rescue bid certainly did not disprove this diagnosis; it merely testified to a greater degree of realization of the opportunities at Russia's disposal."

Much of the Russian leadership's recent unhappiness is based on U.S. success in opening up development and trade routes to Eastern oil, Grobe writes. In his words: "An ice-cold wind is not just sweeping the world from the common viewpoint of Russia and China. It is also blowing Russia full in its ailing face. That is why human rights do not apply on the northern slopes of the Caucasus."

Communists and nationalists, Grobe concludes, will not advance the cause of economic and political reform, nor help the Kremlin improve relations with the West.

BOSTON GLOBE: The real danger is that the political leadership in Moscow could fall into the clutches of old hands from the KGB

The Boston Globe, in an editorial, comments understandingly about the recent arrest of a Russian diplomat accused of eavesdropping on a U.S. State Department conference. "The spies will always be with us," the newspaper concludes. But espionage isn't as dangerous as it once was, says the Globe. It says a greater danger lies with the identity of who in Moscow is in charge.

In the editorial's words: "It would be a mistake to exaggerate the effects of Russia's intelligence caper. Moscow might want to know about American intentions in amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty or in building oil and gas pipelines in the Caucasus, but the importance of such secrets is not the same as it was during the Cold War. Because there is no longer a global conflict between two superpowers and their armies no longer face each other in the heart of Europe, Russian spying in Washington is not too different from spying by other major powers. After FBI agents nabbed Moscow's man, Stanislav Gusev, loitering with a listening device along the Potomac, they were left with problems of spycraft to solve."

The editorial concludes with this: "The real danger from Russia is that the political leadership in Moscow could fall into the clutches of old hands from the KGB."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Croatia, once Germany's darling, is now a problem child

In another direction, German commentator Peter Muench calls in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung for what he calls "a fresh start" for Croatia after the death of President Franjo Tudjman. Muench says that in 1991, Germany stood as a protector and advocate for Croatia, but all that has changed.

Muench explains with these words: "The reasons for the distaste which Bonn felt [more recently] were manifold, but mostly to be found in what was increasingly seen as Tudjman's stubborn attitude. There were arguments over Croatia's refusal to allow refugees to return and its lack of cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Most notably was the West's growing realization that Tudjman had little interest in instilling democracy in his young country."

The writer concludes with this: "In other words: in Germany, special rules no longer exist for Croatia and there is no special relationship. On the European level, too, Croatia is on a bad footing, being the only transitional country in the region to receive no funding from the EU's PHARE reconstruction program. Zagreb's craving for EU membership is also out of the question, and NATO has refused to take the country on board its Partnership for Peace program. Croatia, once Germany's darling, is now a problem child. Berlin has long had links to the opposition in the country, and now that Tudjman is dead, there is hope that his all-powerful Christian Democratic HDZ party will be swept from power. The hope appears justified on both sides that things will never again be as bad as they were when the Croats' Father of the Nation (Tudjman) was alive and well."

WASHINGTON POST: The challenge now is to sustain the momentum of the summit

The Washington Post calls in an editorial for a larger European vision, not just for Croatia but for the East as a whole. The Post says that last weekend's summit of EU leaders in Helsinki showed that the EU is prepared to be more active and assertive. The editorial goes on with these words: "The challenge now is to sustain the momentum of the summit. The rapid-deployment capability [for a new European defense force] is supposed to be ready by 2003; getting there will take a commitment to modernize force structure and reverse cuts in defense spending. Equally, Turkey's accession to the EU may still be years or even decades away; and even countries such as Poland and Hungary, which started the accession process two years ago, are being made to wait until 2004 or so. In all, a dozen suitors are on hold, from the Baltics to the Balkans."

The Post says that the EU needs to reform its lumbering bureaucracy and to learn the meaning of urgency.