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Western Press Review: All Eyes On Putin

Prague, 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators focus largely on yesterday's first-round election victory by Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin. Editorialists and analysts assess the winner's background and the likely changes to come with his installation as his country's second elected chief executive.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Putin's election is no triumph of liberal politics

Britain's Financial Times says: "Western politicians are keen to embrace this powerful leader." But it warns: "They should bide their time until they can see how he intends to use the power of the presidency."

The paper's editorial goes on: "Mr. Putin's election is no triumph of liberal politics. Russia's new president is a former KGB officer and head of the internal intelligence service. He was schooled in an organization that can best be described as secretive and vicious. His campaign was a murderous war in Chechnya." It adds: "To a foreign audience, Mr. Putin speaks the comforting language of reform, of market economics and open politics. At home, his rhetoric is of nationalism and discipline, of liquidating terrorists and purging enemies of the state."

The paper concludes: "Russia certainly needs order and stability. Mr. Putin may be able to run a pretty rotten system better than [former president Boris] Yeltsin could manage. The question is whether he will try to make the economic system better, and fairer. And whether he will foster the development of a civil society at home and good relations abroad."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The Yeltsin era has ended peacefully and Russia has a vigorous new leader

The Wall Street Journal Europe speaks of the "power of Putin" in its editorial, saying that "there is much to fuel both deep worries and high hopes [in his record so far]." The paper writes: "[Putin] beat a path to the Kremlin by demolishing Chechnya. A free press was just one of the inconveniences that got trampled along the way."

"Yet," the editorial continues, "Mr. Putin knows enough about democracy to speak of the rule of law as his highest priority. He is diplomat enough to send foreign visitors -- from U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright to [British Foreign Secretary] Robin Cook, to [new IMF director] Horst Joehler -- away singing his praises."

The paper then asks: "What reason is there for optimism?" It answers: "For all its agonizing missed opportunities, the Yeltsin era has ended peacefully and Russia has a vigorous new leader." It sums up: "It is in Mr. Putin's power to initiate a process of genuine reform and renewal. Just as the election was his to lose, so is Russia's future."

NEW YORK TIMES: Putin is a hybrid politician

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday called Putin, in its words, "a hybrid politician, the product of the recent transformation of Russia from a totalitarian state to a shaky democracy. Like his country," the paper went on, "he seems suspended between Russia's history and its future, impressed by the benefits of liberty and free markets yet drawn to the idea of a firm leader who can restore stability." It added: "There is little doubt that he will be a forceful president, determined to reverse Russia's decline. The question is whether he will do so democratically."

But the editorial goes on to say this: "There is no model for enlightened democratic leadership in Russia. [Former Soviet president Mikhail] Gorbachev," it notes, "for all his efforts to remake the Soviet Union, could never discard his faith in socialism. Yeltsin's embrace of democracy was heartfelt, but his leadership was flawed. Putin," it concludes, "has the chance to be both democratic and effective. It would be a great loss for Russia and the world if he followed the KGB rulebook and turned the Kremlin back into a fortress."

DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALSACE: The people have given the management to an autocrat

A signed editorial by Jean-Claude Kiefer in the French provincial newspaper Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace calls yesterday's Russian vote not an election but a "plebiscite." It says that, judging by the combined votes given to Putin and to Communist candidate Gennadi Zyuganov -- who came in second -- 80 percent of the Russian electorate has voted for "a change to a hard line [government]."

Kiefer writes further: "[Putin and Zyuganov] are both for a strong and centralized state, a return to a state-controlled economy, support for the army and total approval of the war [in Chechnya]. Both," he continues, "dream of returning to Russia its grandeur." He adds: "Only the support of different and mutually antagonistic business oligarchs seems to separate Putin from his Communist challenger."

The editorial sums up: "[Russia's still] indispensable reforms are clearly not for tomorrow. The people have given the management of this immense country to an autocrat -- with a mandate to govern autocratically." There's nothing new in that for Russia, Kiefer says, "it's been going on since Saint Vladimir in the 10th century." The difference is that, this time, the autocrat has been elected democratically.

TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: The only possible hope is that Putin will do other things besides waging a war

In Switzerland's Tribune de Geneve today, a commentary by Moscow correspondent Henri Roth also invokes Tsarist tradition to explain Putin's victory. "After 10 years of democracy," Roth writes, "Russian voters have again allowed the Kremlin to impose a choice on them. As in Tsarist times and under Soviet totalitarianism, Boris Yeltsin designated his own successor."

The editorial goes to say that other candidates in yesterday's election seemed more reasonable choices than Putin. But, it argues, "the voters judged that these outsiders did not have the means to take the country in hand." The only possible hope, Roth concludes, is that in his words, "Putin, with the firm support he enjoys in the State Duma, will do other things beside waging a war [in Chechnya]. If he does, perhaps that will allow the introduction of a bit of social justice and real prosperity in the 'kleptocracy' that Russia has become."

INDEPENDENT: Mr. Putin is unlikely to be able to change the system

In a commentary for the British daily Independent, Patrick Cockburn says that the Chechen war is not the only issue Putin will have to face. He writes: "Putin has fought the election on just one policy: making war on Chechnya. So far it seems to be working. Even Russians who were not going to vote for him said they favored fighting the war to the end. The problem for Mr. Putin," Cockburn argues, "is that the war shows no sign of winding down despite the capture of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and the advance of the Russian army into the mountains of southern Chechnya."

The commentator then says: "The war in Chechnya has masked other pressing economic problems which have fuelled deep resentment against the Russian elite, whose vast wealth controls the economy, in contrast to the extreme poverty of most of the 145 million Russians." He goes on: "The war affects Russia in another way. It has enabled Mr. Putin to suggest that dissent is the equivalent to disloyalty. Media not controlled by the Kremlin have come under attack."

For Cockburn, "The war in Chechnya has masked Mr. Putin's lack of policy on any other issue." Yesterday, he adds, "voters appeared cynical about Mr. Putin's promise to stamp out corruption. Some recall that he was part of administrations in Saint Petersburg and the Kremlin notable for their corrupt practices." He sums up: "Some oligarchs may go, but Mr. Putin is unlikely to be able to change the system -- even if he wanted to."

GUARDIAN: Re-engaging Russia would take need a major turn-around in Western policy

In the daily Guardian, a commentary by David Hearst explores how Russia was lost. Hearst describes Putin as "a tight-lipped 47-year-old KGB staffer, with clear blue eyes and authoritarian tendencies strong enough to bomb one of Russia's republics back into the middle ages."

Hearst argues: "Today, the great and the good are blaming each other for having 'lost Russia.' Some say the theories were right, it was just that the money was not there to back it. Others say the policy should have been to support principles rather than people, institutions rather than events." He adds: "But lost Russia they have. When Yeltsin was first elected president of Russia, and then when the Soviet Union imploded, the streets of Moscow were filled with pro-Western euphoria. Russia threw open not just its front windows, but its doors, backyard and granary to the West. Today the West is seen, even by intellectuals, as venal, self-serving and hypocritical."

The Guardian commentary concludes: "Re-engaging Russia would take need a major [turn-around] in Western policy. It would involve a conscious attempt to buy Russian technology, rather than treat it as a third-world source of raw materials. NATO would have to stop expanding, and the problems of Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine and Latvia addressed. Russia would have to be treated as a serious player on the international stage. None of this is likely."