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Western Press Review: Russia's Prospects, OPEC's Decision

Prague, 31 March 2000 (RFE/RL)) -- Russia's prospects after last Sunday's election of Vladimir Putin as president remain a central preoccupation of Western commentary today. Analysts also continue to assess the likely effect of this week's decision to increase oil output by OPEC -- a multinational cartel of oil-exporting countries -- on the world's economy.

ECONOMIST: The two greatest obstacles to change are regional leaders and the tycoons

In its current issue published today (March 31), the British weekly Economist assesses Russia's prospects in a long special report entitled "The Chaos at the Door." The magazine finds both discouraging and encouraging portents of Russia future. Here is a rundown of the Economist's conclusions:

--Discouraging: "Compared with other well-educated industrialized countries, Russia is dismally poor with [average wages] about $65 a month [compared with $300 dollars monthly] in neighboring Estonia."

"Russia's economy has shrunk almost every year since the collapse of communism [and] living standards have fallen for the vast majority of the population."

"The clearest sign of decay is that Russians die young and have so few babies. [Meanwhile,] social misery is matched by political gloom. Corruption is blatant, crime endemic. The rich and powerful are above the law."

"Then," adds the magazine, "there is Chechnya, [where the war has] coincided with a marked re-militarization of [Russian] society."

-- On the encouraging side, the Economist finds that "the economy is picking up: growth last year was, if you believe the official statistics, a record 3.2 percent."

Also, "there is now a clutch of well-managed Russian-run big companies. That," the magazine comments, "would have been impossible five years ago." And, it argues, "the people working in such enterprises are perhaps the single most hopeful sign for change to come. Well-educated, open-minded, well-traveled, they are a kind of Russian that has barely existed for three generations."

Summing up, the magazine says: "The two greatest obstacles to change are regional leaders and the tycoons, known as 'oligarchs.'" It says Putin will have to address both problems directly if Russia is to reform itself. And it adds: "The other danger is the emergence of a pugnacious nationalism. [If] the promised economic revival, lawfulness and efficiency fail to materialize," it warns, "Mr. Putin may look for another distraction [in another war]."

TIMES: Moscow does not intend fundamental change in its Chechnya policy

The Times of Britain says in an editorial today that "it is time for a real human rights clean-up in Chechnya." Noting this week's indictment of a Russian military officer for human-rights abuses in Chechnya -- the first such publicized arrest -- the paper writes: "The message Russia is sending out, through this sudden focus on human rights issues in Chechnya, is a virtuous one: that it is cracking down hard on any unfortunate incidents of lawless behavior by its own troops and that, barring such rare incidents, its human rights policy in Chechnya is above reproach. This message is a response to growing pressure from the West to rein in the 100,000 Russian troops there."

The editorial goes on to say: "The West was cautious about criticizing Russia's Chechnya policy while the huge but unstable country conducted presidential elections. Now victory for Mr. Putin, a Chechnya hawk who came to public attention as the architect of the war last year, has intensified international scrutiny."

The Times then argues: "If the crackdown that Russia is publicizing now is the first step in a serious clean-up of its conduct in Chechnya, it must be applauded. Experience in this and the previous war shows, however, that such displays of good intent seldom last longer than the flashes of foreign attention that prompt them." The paper concludes: "Mr. Putin's retention of Igor Sergeyev as defense minister is one of many signs that Moscow does not intend fundamental change in its Chechnya policy."

NEWSDAY: Russia's elections may be making the country less democratic, not more

Commentaries in two U.S. national dailies focus on Putin's electoral victory. In the regional daily Newsday (published in New York state), analyst Paul Saunders says bluntly: "Vladimir Putin's rise to Russia's presidency should put to rest once and for all the notion that the occurrence of elections has anything to do with the development of democracy in Russia. In fact, Russia's elections may be making the country less democratic, not more."

He argues: "Rather than completing the foundations of Russian democracy by providing for a transfer of power, Russia's latest election campaign has only further distorted the country's political development. The fact that the election took place Sunday -- rather than in June, when Boris Yeltsin's second term was to have expired -- is in itself an indication of this."

He goes on: "The conduct of the campaign also undermined Russian democracy. As acting president, Putin fully exploited the lessons of Yeltsin's 1996 campaign, in which the full power of the Russian state was brought to bear on regional governments and local and national media in order to ensure support for his candidacy. This time around, governors who supported Putin's opponents faced the threat of slashed budgets, while opposition television networks and newspapers were harassed and intimidated."

WASHINGTON POST: Kosovo created in Russia a national security consensus

In a Washington Post commentary, columnist Charles Krauthammer says that "the path to Putin" leads to Kosovo. He explains: "The path from [U.S.-led NATO's intervention in] Kosovo to Putin is not that difficult to trace. It goes through Chechnya. Americans may not see the connection, but Russians do."

The commentary argues: "Russians had long been suffering an 'Afghan-Chechen syndrome' under which they believed they could not prevail in local conflicts purely by the use of force. Kosovo demonstrated precisely the efficacy of raw force." It continues: "Russians had also been operating under the assumption that to be a good international citizen they could not engage in the unilateral use of force without the general approval of the international community. Kosovo cured them of that illusion."

"And finally," Krauthammer says, "Russia had acquiesced in the expansion of NATO under the expectation and assurance that it would remain, as always, a defensive alliance. Then, within 11 days of incorporating Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO was launching its first extra-territorial war." He concludes: "Kosovo created in Russia what [U.S. analyst Dimitri] Simes calls a 'national security consensus': the demand for a strong leader to do what it takes to restore Russia's standing and status. And it made confrontation with the U.S. a badge of honor."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: There is no single solution to the energy challenge

Turning to Tuesday's decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, to increase crude-oil production and thereby lower world prices, a commentary by analyst Richard Haass in the Los Angeles Times says: "Today's focus on [the price of] oil should not obscure what is arguably the more important consideration of supply. What matters," he argues, "is that there is enough oil to meet the bulk of the world's demand. [There] is only one global oil market; major supply shortages from any source will affect us all."

Haass goes on to say: "This places a premium on the stability of the Persian Gulf area, home to approximately two-thirds of the world's proved oil reserves, and to Saudi Arabia in particular, the world's single largest producer of oil. This argues," he believes, "for continued efforts to weaken -- and ultimately change -- the Iraqi regime, the greatest threat to that region's stability. It also suggests the need to reconsider current U.S. policy toward Iran, a policy that all but precludes U.S. participation in the Iranian oil industry."

The commentary sums up: "There is no single solution to the energy challenge. This issue cuts across what are normally seen as the separate spheres of foreign and defense policy, economic policy and domestic policy. It involves," he says, a long list of important elements: "such matters as maintaining and tapping strategic reserves, encouraging conservation, diversifying energy sources, multiplying oil producers, progressing on the Arab-Israeli front, international sharing or pooling arrangements, adequate military preparations and encouraging producers to undertake social, political and economic reforms to make domestic instability less likely."

INFORMATION: Possibly expensive oil will encourage the development of more environment-friendly energy production technologies

In Denmark, the daily Information comments in an editorial: "From a strategic point of view, OPEC's actions are designed to undermine the global political and economic hegemony of the United States, which is by far the largest petroleum consumer in the world. Even though the high-tech America of today is not as dependent on oil as it used to be," the paper says, "the U.S.'s society and economy need large quantities of oil every day." But the editorial notes: "Recognizing the seriousness of OPEC's intended course, Washington put maximum pressure on the organization at its Vienna meeting."

The paper goes on to say that the U.S. Congress, in its words, "made future weapons sales to OPEC countries contingent upon the maintenance of low oil prices. Such measures went down well with America's closest allies in the Middle East [Kuwait and Saudi Arabia]," which, Information says, sought to convince other OPEC members, in effect, to stabilize world oil prices at about $25 per barrel.

The editorial sums up: "Western consumers of oil should forget the happy days of the 1960s or 1998 when a barrel [of oil] sold for $10. This," it says, "is not such a bad development, since it will encourage the development of alternative and possibly more environment-friendly energy production technologies."