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Western Press Review: Commentators Puzzle Over Russia's Putin

Prague, 6 March (RFE/RL) -- Three weeks before Russia's presidential election (March 26), Western press commentators are seeking to understand what several call the puzzling Vladimir Putin, the country's acting president and likely electoral winner. Adding to the puzzle yesterday, in an interview with a British broadcaster (David Frost), Putin said he favors closer relations with NATO and even foresees the possibility of Russia becoming a member of the now 19-member alliance, its long-time adversary. Here's our selection of comments assessing Putin, the war in Chechnya with which he is identified, and Russia's future relations with NATO.

In its current issue (dated March 4), the British weekly Economist writes of Putin: "He stands so far ahead of his rivals in the opinion polls largely because of his brutal success in the war against the Chechens. If he wins on March 26, he will be Russia's least experienced leader since the revolution. And if his tactics in Chechnya are anything to go by, he may turn out to be far from an embraceable democrat."

But the magazine's editorial notes that Putin, in its words, "has started to chip away at the frost that has blighted [Russia's] relations with NATO. And he recognizes that Russia's recent isolation could damage his hopes for eventual economic recovery." Also, the Economist says, Putin "is no communist ideologue. When he talks of building a strong state, he means one capable of bringing some legal order out of the chaos into which Russia has fallen."

But exactly what does he mean, ask the editorial, by "a strong Russia?" It replies: "Some sort of answer may emerge from his treatment of the smaller places inside Russia and on its rim, notably Chechnya, which will not long be pacified without genuine autonomy, if not independence. ... In his day," the weekly concludes, "[former Russian president Boris] Yeltsin put his signature to all Europe's rules -- from the good-conduct codes of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the human rights conventions of the Council of Europe -- and in the end flouted [that is, violated] them. If Mr. Putin can do better, the West should give him its support. If not, it would be wise to keep its distance."

The Times of Britain focuses on the import of Putin's broadcast interview. It says: "The man virtually certain to capture Russia's presidency is revealing some flexibility behind his dour demeanor. Vladimir Putin told David Frost yesterday that he could not rule out the possibility that Russia might one day join NATO -- provided it was treated as an equal partner. But," the paper goes on, "although Moscow is as far from applying as NATO is from considering such a destabilizing change, Mr. Putin's remark is significant. ... He has [sent] out conciliatory signals to the West: Under a Putin presidency, Russia will neither retreat into isolation nor arm itself for a new Cold War."

The Times' editorial continues: "Mr. Putin knows that the Chechen war, the conflict that he used so cynically to outflank his rivals, has inflicted serious damage on Russia's image and relations with the West and the Muslim world. Goodwill, trust and understanding have been replaced, on both sides, with suspicion, frustration and the revival of Soviet-era attitudes. ... That is why he was at such pains to assert yesterday that the military operations in Chechnya were virtually over."

The Times also argues that, in its words, "few Western leaders will accept [Putin's] assertion that Russia has been intent only on eliminating 'bandits' from Chechnya or that reports of atrocities were lies put out in a propaganda war. Mr. Putin has to go a long way yet to assuage the general revulsion at what his troops have been doing. But," the paper concludes, "the West should be encouraged by his insistence that Russia was not going to shut itself off from the world, and that what it sought was not a confrontation with NATO but a strategic partnership."

The Irish Times today says this: "The most meaningful achievement during Ireland's [current] presidency of the Council of Europe has been a perceptible softening of Russia's approach towards human rights in Chechnya. ... The special human rights commissioner for Chechnya under Russia's acting presidency, Mr. Vladimir Kalamanov, announced that the Kremlin was prepared to allow the council to base two human rights experts in Chechnya. This," the paper says, "marks a shift from the Kremlin's original position, which ruled out any international involvement in the Chechen crisis."

The editorial says further that what it calls recent "grudging" [that is, reluctant] admissions of human rights violations in Chechnya should be, as it puts it, "regarded as welcome shifts in direction by Russia in its attitude toward the Chechen question." The Irish Times argues: "Russia is open to some leverage from the [41-nation] Council of Europe]. It does not want to be singled out as a state in breach of its human rights obligations. But it also knows that the council ... would be extremely unwilling to diminish its status as an international organization by expelling Russia or suspending its membership."

In Switzerland, the daily Tribune de Geneve carries a signed editorial by Pierre Meyer entitled, "Grozny: A Hell Signed Putin." In a strongly stated attack, Meyer writes: "The acting Russian president, or any one of his generals with blood-stained hands, should qualify [for trial at the International War Crime Tribunal in The Hague]. ... For the past five months," Meyer writes, "Chechens have been forcibly removed from their land, terrorized by bombardments, left without food, harassed each day by [Russian combat] soldiers and their brutal back-up troops."

Unlike the Irish Times, the Swiss editorial speaks of what it calls "the absolute scorn shown by Putin and those close to him for international humanitarian law." But Meyer says there is little chance, in his words, "of any international penal court ever ruling on Russia's misdeeds in Chechnya. Its big-power status protects Russia from any such indictment -- but not from the opprobrium [that is, reproaches] that its inhumane actions will long warrant." Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung seeks to assess in an editorial by Daniel Broessler what it calls "Russia's Second War" in Chechnya. The paper writes: "From the very outset, the war in Chechnya has also been a battle of words. Embarrassingly," it adds, "acting President Vladimir Putin has avoided describing his campaign in realistic terms. He never speaks of war, only about 'operations.'" The paper also notes: "The military phase has almost come to an end, the President now says." But, it asks, "Is the war really over? The reports from the Caucasus say otherwise."

The editorial concludes: "Although Putin does not want to speak of war, many Russians are aware that in fact there are two wars. There is the open war, which the Russians conduct with armored cars and planes, and there is the undercover [guerrilla] one, in which neither of these weapons are of any use to them. This is the partisan war, with its surprise attacks from the hinterland. To all intents and purposes, the Russians have won the first war, but they can probably only lose the second one."

In Norway, the daily Aftenposten writes: "Russia's acting -- and, probably after the March 26 vote, elected -- President Vladimir Putin has come up with a revolutionary vision of Russia as a member of NATO. This," the paper believes, "may happen if Moscow creates the right conditions for membership and if the West begins to treat Russia with due respect."

The editorial argues that the kind of Russia Putin wants to lead is, in its words, "a revamped great power, a country whose citizens are all treated equally and which the outside world takes seriously. He has said," it adds, "that Russia neither favors isolationism, nor is keen on creating a new sphere of influence for itself." So, the paper argues, if Putin "has any intention of keeping all of his verbal commitments, the West should wish him luck at election time, because this is precisely the kind of Russia that the West has sought since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991." "Yet," the Aftenposten concludes, "Russia has many responsibilities to assume -- including, notably, the war in Chechnya. Moscow's desire to uphold peace and security in the north Caucasus is understandable," the paper says. "But the means it has used to attain this goal are unacceptable. Russia has to change them if it wants to improve its relations with the West."

(NCA's Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen and Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)