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Western Press Review: Russia's Weakness; Germany's Corruption

Prague, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today and over the weekend focuses in large part on problems in two major European countries -- Russia and Germany. Some analysts mull over perceived evidence of Russia's current weaknesses -- and its strengths. Others discuss the implications of the political fund-raising scandals that are now afflicting Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- which has ruled the country through much of the postwar era -- and its former leader, ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The change is a confession of weakness

Three U.S. newspaper comments worry about dangers posed not only by Russia's strengths but by its weaknesses. In an editorial yesterday entitled "A Weak Moscow Growls," The Los Angeles Times said: "Russia has adopted a new national security doctrine that is as notable for its bleak recitation of internal dangers as for its perception that the U.S. and its Western allies present a growing threat to Russian interests ... Moscow candidly advertises its woes, even as it proclaims suspicions ... that the West is plotting to undermine it."

The editorial continued: "Attracting the most attention in Western capitals is Moscow's apparent increased readiness to use its nuclear weapons. It's now prepared to 'go nuclear' not only if Russia's existence is in jeopardy, as an earlier strategic doctrine suggested, but 'to repulse an armed aggression, if all other means of resolving the crisis are exhausted or have been ineffective.'"

"The change," the paper argues, "is a confession of weakness. Russia's conventional military capability has fallen apart since the collapse of the Soviet Union; one Russian security expert claims that Turkey's military potential is now greater than Russia's. The U.S. State Department says it doesn't think the new doctrine marks a significant shift in policy, but concern is in order whenever the threshold for using nuclear weapons is lowered."

BOSTON GLOBE: The main threat to Russia's national interests comes from economic weakness, crime, and corruption

The Boston Globe today also talks of "A Dangerously Weak Russia" in its editorial. The paper writes: "The new doctrine prepared by the Kremlin's National Security Council illustrates a paradoxical insight long familiar to policy makers: In the near term, the U.S. and its allies may have more to fear from Russian weakness than from Russian strength."

The paper goes on: "(Moscow's) new nuclear threshold is being asserted to compensate for the decomposition of Russia's conventional armed forces. Contrary to the triumphalism of media outlets in thrall to the Kremlin, Russia's military performance in the current offensive against Chechnya reveals low morale in a conscript army, unreliable and poorly maintained equipment, tactical clumsiness, and troubled relations between generals and their civilian superiors."

The editorial does find some "good news in Moscow's new security concept ... its recognition that the main threat to Russia's national interests comes from economic weakness, crime, and corruption. The antidotes commended," the paper notes, "include 'maintaining constitutional order, deepening democracy, and rooting out extremism.' The more Russia succeeds at these tasks," the BG concludes, "the less anxiety it will cause in the West."

NEW YORK TIMES: The alliance seems to reflect cynical opportunism

The New York Times yesterday commented on last week's parliamentary alliance between two of Russia's political adversaries, the Communist Party and the Kremlin-backed Unity group. The paper wrote: "By striking a parliamentary deal with his presumed arch foes, the Communists, Russia's Acting President Vladimir Putin has deepened the mystery over what he believes and how he intends to lead Russia. The alliance seems to reflect cynical opportunism on both sides rather than ideological affinity. But Putin would have done better to join forces with centrist groups committed to political democracy and market-oriented reforms."

The editorial argued further: "While the Communists are more numerous, more disciplined and perhaps even more docile than the fractious centrists, they are not a force for reform. Their role could become even more reactionary if Putin decided to move in an authoritarian direction. In that case the Communists might prove all too willing to back additional powers for police and intelligence agencies and new restrictions on individual and press freedoms."

The paper concluded with some remarks on Russia's upcoming presidential election: "There remains," it said, "a real but remote possibility that someone will win an upset victory over Putin," noting "that would make the current alliance between the Kremlin and the Communists largely irrelevant." But if Putin is the victor, the NYT concluded, he will emerge "with a strong electoral mandate and a four-year term of his own ..... (He) will then have to decide whether he wants to maintain this alliance, and if so, how he means to use it."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: No one can foresee the devastating impact of continuing silence

Several West European papers discuss the political funding scandals that have overtaken Germany's chief opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its long-time leader, former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In Germany itself, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes in an editorial: "The crisis in the CDU is growing more serious with each passing day. There is much talk of a schism [within the party]. But in fact," the paper continues, a CDU split in the final analysis would not heal the "rift between those who ... want to force Kohl to reveal the [the sources of the party's secret and illegal political contributions] and those who want to preserve CDU unity." Underlying both attitudes, the editorial adds, is "the fear of inflicting further damage on the party." It concludes: "Nobody knows whether naming the [party's financial] benefactors will calm the public or whether new revelations and accusations will further [fuel the scandals]. But on the other hand, no-one can foresee the devastating impact of continuing silence and persistent unlawfulness."

AFTENPOSTEN: Kohl has simply put his own honor above the country's laws

In Norway, the daily Aftenposten concentrates in its editorial today on the scandal's impact on Helmut Kohl. The paper writes: "According to one theory, Helmut Kohl is not yet politically dead. He can still win the applause of CDU members, as happened over the weekend when he went to a party meeting in Bremen. Many of them still perceive him as the 'Unification Chancellor' and the 'Great European' who reconciled Germany and Poland. But," the paper goes on, "many more understand that, by refusing to talk, Helmut Kohl is speeding up his own demise and bringing the CDU down .... The man has simply put his own honor above the country's laws."

The Aftenposten continues: "Kohl's 70 birthday was to be marked by an official celebration on April 3. It has already been postponed. He is going to go down in history with a question mark hanging over his head. Why does he still not speak out?" asks the paper in conclusion.

DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALCASE: Who can still pretend Franco-German amity does not exist?

In the French provincial daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alcase foreign editor Jean-Claude Kiefer writes of what he ironically calls the "lovely Franco-German friendship" in a signed editorial today. "Who can still pretend," Kiefer asks ironically, "that Franco-German amity does not exist? The friendship is actually so deep that it descends into twilight zones of intimate, unacknowledgeable complicities."

"Thus," Kiefer explains, it is now alleged that "on orders form Socialist [President] Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl -- or, rather, his Christian Democratic party -- profited greatly from the obscure financial largess provided by [the French then state-owned ELF oil giant] in order to win the 1994 general elections against [the French Socialists'] 'fraternal party,' the German Social Democrats."

How to explain this, Kiefer asks again? He recalls that "in 1994, after all, 'Europe' was still a battleground -- with [its new currency --] the euro -- monetary union and German unification the principal sources of conflict. All three ideas were then barely supported by Kohl's chief political adversary, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Remember, too," Kiefer adds, that in those days the SPD "was in an intellectual swamp, floundering amid competing ideologies .... [At that time, we're told that] Francois could only count on his friend Helmut .... Unfortunately," he sums up, "on the other side of the Rhine [river], that explanation is not acceptable."

WASHINGTON POST: Kohl must be taken as a whole

A U.S. commentator, columnist Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, says that, "whatever Kohl's misdeeds, [they] will never cancel out his achievements." Hoagland argues: "Shed no tears for Helmut Kohl and his quick plunge from the mountain-top of political glory to the pits of disgrace and criminal investigation. He earned both the heights and the depths."

In such circumstances, Hoagland notes, "it is axiomatic to ask "which part of a fallen leader's record will prevail -- the good, the bad or the ugly?" For him, the question "misses the point about so fundamental a figure [as] M . Kohl, who must be taken as a whole, especially since the qualities that led him to greatness are the same that conveyed him to ignominy."