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Western Press Review: Russia, China, IMF

Prague, 28 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today has no single dominating focus. Among other subjects, analysts touch on recent developments in Russia and China and on the upcoming change in leadership at the International Monetary Fund.

TIMES: Spring is likely to push Russia's war in Chechnya two ways

We'll begin our sampling with three comments on Russia. In an editorial today, the Times of Britain warns, "The Chechen war must not spill over into Georgia." The paper writes: "Spring is likely to push Russia's war in rebel Chechnya two ways. Moscow will try to complete its military campaign by taking control of the rebel-held mountains before [acting President] Vladimir Putin, top Chechnya hawk and favorite for long-term presidential office, seeks the presidency in a March 26 vote. As Russian bombing -- and reported atrocities -- are stepped up, and warmer weather makes travel easier, Chechen refugees will try to escape the army attacks."

"The bigger danger," the Times continues, "is that spring might also take the war beyond Russian territory to the neighboring ex-Soviet state of Georgia. Refugees from Chechnya might flee into Georgia, hoping to escape violence in a foreign state whose leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, has clout in the West. But this could prompt larger-scale hostilities if Russia were to send its military in pursuit across what is now an international border."

The editorial argues that, in its words, "the best way to keep Georgia out of the Chechen imbroglio is to keep Chechen refugees out of Georgia. The onus here is on Moscow since refugees are Russian citizens and want to stay -- if they can be sure of decent treatment -- and get home fast when fighting ends to rebuild their houses."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: What happens in Russia is probably the most important security question the world now faces

Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff analyzes what he calls Vladimir Putin's "nationalism." He says that the "main lines of [Putin's] ambitions for Russia ... are to re-establish order and to regain the international influence and great-power rank it enjoyed in the past. ... The war in Chechnya," Pfaff adds, "is a peculiarly brutal assertion of his program."

The commentator goes on to underline what he calls the West's "indulgence ... to all this, particularly to the outrages committed during the Chechnya campaign." Pfaff believes the West's reaction is, in his words, "comprehensible in terms of political realism, if unedifying. You deal with the Russia you have, not the one you wish were there." But he adds: "Wishful thinking nonetheless is evident, [deriving] from a certain romanticism about Russia" -- particularly evident, he says, in the seven years of Bill Clinton's U.S. presidency.

Pfaff concludes: "What happens in Russia during the next [10 years] is probably the most important security question the world now faces, and the one least easily answered. ... We no longer have [a plausible scenario] for Russia. Yet Russia," he says, "is closer than other [nuclear powers] to the 'inflamed condition' that [British philosopher] Isaiah Berlin ... said is the result of 'national humiliation.'"

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Putin was appointed to defend oligarchs -- not dismantle them

In Britain's Financial Times, correspondent John Thornhill discusses recent moves by Russian industrialists that seek to challenge the power of the so-called business "oligarchs." In a news analysis, he says the industrialists "are fed up with their lawless business environment and are banding together to press for political change."

Thornhill writes: "The industrialists argue that the oligarchs have corrupted the country's political system. [And they argue] that it is only if Russia cuts its oligarchs down to size and establishes fairer rules for everyone that the country's economy will ever truly revive. ... [They believe] that Vladimir Putin ... may be just the man to lead such a revolution."

Thornhill continues: "[Industrialists] are banding together to demand political change. In Moscow, [for example,] a group of 20 entrepreneurs has founded the 2015 Club, which is actively seeking to shape the agenda for a Putin presidency." But he says that, in his words, "it is unclear whether Mr. Putin has any intention of playing the role so eagerly ascribed to him. Mr. Putin was appointed by 'the Family,' the shadowy grouping of oligarchs surrounding President Boris Yeltsin's administration, to defend their interests -- not dismantle them."

AFTENPOSTEN: Moscow should not be allowed to hide its responsibility for war crimes

Two Scandinavian papers also comment on Russia today. In an editorial, Norway's Aftenposten says this: "That Russian forces in Chechnya have committed terrible crimes against humanity was confirmed by [Western] media [last week]. The Russian television station NTV has also shown some of the gruesome footage, but it is unclear what effect it will have on Russian public opinion or on the politicians who conduct the war in the breakaway republic."

The editorial continues: "[These] actions can with fair precision be termed war crimes, [even if] crimes committed in a civil war are different from war crimes committed in a conflict between two sovereign states." It then argues: "Moscow should not be allowed to hide its responsibility under the pretense that the war crimes committed are an internal affair because Chechnya is nominally a part of Russia proper."

The paper sums up: "The only thing Russia can do under the circumstances to restore its credibility is to open up Chechnya to international observers. Otherwise it is hard to reconcile the kind of Russia that has so vehemently protested against NATO's action in Kosovo with the Russia that [does nothing] when its own soldiers commit crimes against humanity on its own territory."

INFORMATION: It would be more appropriate for the West to indict Vladimir Putin as a war criminal

In Denmark, the daily Information says the latest reports of alleged atrocities committed by Russians in Chechnya "is not news. For months," the paper writes, Russia has consistently [been seen as committing] crimes against humanity: indiscriminate violence, plunder, torture and rape -- all actions that Russia, through a number of international treaties, has pledged not to commit."

But the paper also assigns blame for the situation in Chechnya to what it calls "the West's cynicism." It writes: "A year ago, the West was faced with the same dilemma in Kosovo: to intervene ... or to look the other way, shrugging it off as an internal affair." It has done the latter, the editorial concludes, adding: "It would be more appropriate [for the West] to indict Vladimir Putin as a war criminal than to try to woo him ahead of the impending presidential election."

NEW YORK TIMES: A split in Chinese leadership is widening rapidly

Turning to China, two U.S. commentators discuss Beijing's recent threat to Taiwan to use violent means to unite the island-state with the mainland if it does not agree to open talks on the subject soon. In the New York Times, columnist William Safire writes: "The tectonic plates are shifting under China's political system. The resulting stress seems to be leading toward a political earthquake. How else," he asks, "to explain Beijing's apparently irrational threat last week of growing readiness to take Taiwan by force?"

Safire goes on: "China's leaders are not crazy. The only rational explanation for their seemingly aberrant behavior is that a split in their leadership is widening rapidly. That severe internal stress could cause a lashing-out into war [with Taiwan]." He explains the split as follows: "One side -- the 'half-good' side behind Prime Minister Zhu Rongji -- while stifling political freedom at home, wants to take the capitalist road, loosen economic constraints, do business with the U.S. and join the [World Trade Organization]. The far worse side -- behind President Jiang Zemin and the corrupt military-industrial cartels -- fears free trade, and counters worker and student unrest by arresting dissidents and cracking down on ... the growing Falun Gong movement."

The commentary also says: "Jiang's Communist militarists have recently seen what a dose of nationalist fervor can do to keep a repressive regime in power. They watched how Vladimir Putin used 'breakaway Chechnya' as his scapegoat to take workers' minds off economic distress, and how Washington reacted by admiring his intellect and thereby supporting his election. They have been making the same noises about 'breakaway Taiwan' as Putin did before his popular rape of the Chechens."

WASHINGTON POST: Abrupt change is characteristic of the Chinese system

In the Washington Post, Asian specialist Arthur Waldron also argues that President Jiang and his supporters are responsible for the escalation of threats against Taiwan. And he faults the U.S. for imagining -- erroneously, in his view -- "that somehow [it] has caused or contributed to the crisis."

Waldron argues that, in his words, "the prospects are not all grim. If Mr. Jiang stakes out a hard line as [a] power position, then his opponents may go for the opposite: domestic reforms and liberalization, constructive relations with the West and conciliation with Taiwan." He adds that "strong constituencies exist in China and in [its] Communist Party for such policies."

"Abrupt change is characteristic of the Chinese system," the commentator sums up. "Although a storm may be brewing, it could eventually bring better weather."

NEW YORK TIMES: The IMF should open up the process of selecting its next director

In an editorial today, the New York Times discusses the coming change in leadership of the International Monetary Fund, or IMF. The paper writes: "Unhappily, and true to form, [the IMF] is proceeding in secret, with little opportunity for the public to appraise the leading candidates or their views on critical questions about the future of the fund. The lack of openness is intolerable for one of the world's most influential organizations."

The paper continues: "Critics accuse the fund of overreaching. It intervenes in dozens of countries, only some of which are in immediate financial turmoil, to fight poverty or to help shift their economies from socialism to capitalism. The fund's mixed record of success has [raised] important questions about whether [it] should bail out fewer countries, pour less money into bankrupt nations, impose less onerous conditions on its loans or lift the debt of poverty-stricken societies."

The next IMF director, the editorial says, "will face these and many other difficult issues. Yet," it adds, "not one of the three top candidates has adequately described in public how he would handle them or made clear whether he would try to lead the fund in new directions." The top candidates are Stanley Fischer, current IMF deputy director; Caio Koch-Weser, Germany's deputy finance minister; and Eisuke Sakakibara, a former Japanese vice minister of finance. The paper advises the fund to take its time choosing among them and, above all, "shed the secrecy that surrounds its deliberations ... by opening up the process of selecting its next director."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)