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Western Press Review: Perception Of A Shifting Tide For Russia's Putin

By Don Hill, Dora Slaba, Anthony Georgieff, and Alexis Papasotiriou

Prague, 10 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time in 10 days, some elements of the Western press say they see Chechnya-shaped cracks in the armor of Russia's interim president, Vladimir Putin.

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: The young Russian democracy is showing its true image

The first press reaction to President Boris Yeltsin's New Year's Eve resignation and virtual anointing of Putin as his successor demonstrated acceptance of what appeared inevitable and expressions of hope that Putin would revive Russian democratic and economic reforms. Then, as commentators reviewed Putin's record as spymaster and strongman, commentary continued to suggest inevitability but drew back from hopefulness. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commentator Markus Wehner models that school today.

Wehner writes that "Russia's future has a new name: Putin." He goes on to say this: "Few doubt that the acting president will fail to win the position of head of state in two and a half months." The writer says that what he calls "the premature election in March" will be more than a ritual, but that it will be less than "a genuine decision by the people." It will be "tantamount to a plebiscite."

The German writer says: "The country has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. It has said goodbye to communism; it has become freer and more colorful. Yet it is far from a civil society. The young Russian democracy is showing its true image today: the image of a the KGB-officer Putin."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Setbacks in Chechnya are beginning to erode Putin's authority

Other commentary contends there are signs that Chechnya could rise up to bite Putin before March. Marcus Warren of London's Daily Telegraph writes this from Moscow: "The rush of setbacks in the North Caucasus is beginning to erode the authority of Vladimir Putin, Russia's acting president, in the very area where he commands most respect -- his handling of Chechnya -- and threatens his campaign to be elected president on March 26."

In Warren's words: "With his credibility already at stake little more than a week after succeeding Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin sought at the weekend to play down increasing signs of chaos in the military command."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Reality is starting to rub up against Putin's reputation

The Wall Street Journal Europe takes a similar line in an editorial, as follows: "Not 10 days have passed since Vladimir Putin became Russia's acting president, and already reality is starting to rub up against his reputation as a straight-talking and effective leader. The campaign in Chechnya, on which his hopes of winning the March 26 presidential election rests, is going badly."

The newspaper lists several reports of Russian military setbacks in Chechnya, and goes on to say this: "All of this suggests that it may be wise to reconsider the assumptions now being made by many analysts, both about the new Russian president and the course his country is likely to take in coming months. So far, Mr. Putin -- himself a product of the old Soviet KGB -- has succeeded largely by making adept use of various disinformation campaigns."

The editorial concludes: "A deteriorating economic situation and the prospect of another interminable, blood-draining war in Chechnya may sink Mr. Putin's popularity even before the March election. In that case, it would be wise for the reformers (of Russia) -- and essential for Russia's future -- to offer a viable alternative both to Mr. Putin and the only other declared candidate, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. Surely there must be some room in this campaign for candidates with sounder positions to offer."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Both sides routinely exaggerate their gains

In an analysis from Moscow, Los Angeles Times writer Maura Reynolds says that "disinformation" appears to flow both ways in the Chechen war. She quotes a rebel spokesman as saying -- after claims of Russian setbacks -- the combatants have arrived at, "the turning point in the second Chechen war." The writer goes on to say: "Both sides routinely exaggerate their gains, and that assessment appeared overstated. But the Russian military -- which lost an earlier war against Chechen separatists in 1996 -- confirmed three major rebel attacks."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Mr. Putin is not necessarily the best choice

The International Herald Tribune today publishes a Washington Post editorial contradicting the view that Putin's election is a mere yes-or-no choice for Russian voters. The editorial says that Yeltsin's resignation and Putin's incumbency-in-fact gives Putin a large boost, but, the editorial contends, no guarantee. He is genuinely popular in Russia, the editorial says, just as Chechens are genuinely unpopular.

The editorial concludes: "Many Americans may worry, and with good cause, about Mr. Putin's appeal to nationalism and his willingness to build popularity atop the war crimes of his troops in Chechnya. They may be nauseated, again with good cause, by Mr. Clinton's everlasting justifications of Mr. Putin's war, as in his recent description of Russia's efforts to 'liberate' Grozny, Chechnya's capital. But it is important to separate judgment about outcomes from condemnation of process. Mr. Putin is heavily favored now largely because he is most popular. That does not necessarily make him the best choice, but it does not make him a czar, either."

NEW YORK TIMES: Clinton should press Syria and Israel to make peace with each other and not with him

Western commentary also focuses on U.S. efforts to push Israel and Syria toward a bilateral peace settlement. New York Times political columnist Bill Safire warns the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton to be wary of seeking to force the issue with unkeepable promises. Safire writes: "Three motives -- selfless, historical and personal -- [put pressure on Clinton] to be peacemaker. However, his desire to bridge the gap between Israel and Syria may induce him to give guarantees that would lead only to a paper peace."

Safire closes his commentary saying: "A peace negotiation that relies at the outset on the uncertain patrolling of foreign nationals and the iffy support of foreign money is not likely to lead to agreement that will stand the test of time. A deal that counts on outside policing and subsidy encourages the principals to avoid reality. Clinton should facilitate, not intervene with fast-souring sweeteners. He should press Syria and Israel to make peace with each other and not with him."

AFTENPOSTEN: The devil is in the details

Norway's Aftenposten says in an editorial that reassuring words emanate from the Israel-Syria talks in Washington, but that it is too early to celebrate hopes for substantive progress. As Aftenposten puts it: "Both Syria and Israel appear committed to establishing peace between themselves, but [as the saying goes] the devil is in the details. It has turned out that it is next to impossible to find the kind of wording that would be satisfactory to both parties after a period of hostility dating back to the 1967 war."

KATHIMERINI: This is a historic opportunity to show that the international justice system can function in a just way

The Greek daily Kathimerini editorialized yesterday that Yugoslavia's appeal against NATO at the UN war crimes court in the Hague has U.S. and NATO leaders worried. The editorial said that the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch -- what the editorial called "the American organization" -- possesses, in Kathimerini's words, "evidence to prove that NATO bombed Serbia's civilian infrastructure deliberately and killed more civilians than [NATO's leaders] claim it did." The Greek newspaper quoted Michael Mandrel, a lawyer representing Yugoslavia at the war crimes court, as saying, "This is a historic opportunity to show that the international justice system can function in a just way." Kathimerini said Human Rights Watch stressed that NATO chose targets that were what the editorial terms "inappropriate" and that "the bombings should be viewed as violations of international humanitarian justice."