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Western Press Review: Africa's Crises; Russia's Putin And Yakovlev

Prague, 16 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two African wars are at the center of Western press commentators' attention today. They are the renewed conflict between the impoverished East African states of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the continuing civil war in the continent's chaotic western nation of Sierra Leone. There are also comments on Russia's President Vladimir Putin and on the newly re-elected governor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev.

NEW YORK TIMES: It is hard to think of a more pointless and wasteful international conflict

The New York Times calls the East African conflict a "ruinous war." The paper writes in an editorial: "After nearly a year-long lull in fighting, two of the world's poorest countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, are at war again. It is hard to think of a more pointless and wasteful international conflict."

The editorial goes on: "The causes of the war resist rational explication. It is ostensibly a border dispute, with both sides claiming sovereignty over a remote 620-mile frontier that was never clearly delineated when Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. But that dispute has inflamed deeper issues of mistrust and nationalistic passions that have ruptured the uneasy alliance between two guerrilla armies that fought side by side in Ethiopia to bring down the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam."

The paper notes: "In the two years since fighting erupted in May 1998, casualty estimates have ranged [as] high as 70,000. Tens of thousands of Eritreans have been deported from their homes in Ethiopia. Some 270,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. The war compounds the danger of a looming [Ethiopian famine that] has put 8 million people at risk of starvation." For all this, the editorial says, "the leaders of the two countries, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, bear responsibility. [They] have been obstinate in defense of their own narrow agendas and heedless of the suffering the war has caused."

WASHINGTON POST: There is reason for concern about the strategy of appeasement

Most other comment on Africa focuses on Sierra Leone. The Washington Post strongly criticizes both the United Nations and the United States for their conduct in the embattled West African nation. The paper writes: "The release of 157 United Nations peacekeeping troops by the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, in Sierra Leone is good news. Yet with more than 340 blue helmets still being held hostage by warlord Foday Sankoh and his men, there is reason for concern about the strategy being pursued by the U.S. and the U.S. In a word," the paper says, "that strategy is appeasement."

The paper calls last year's peace agreement -- brokered by the U.S.-- "ill-advised" because in its words, "Mr. Sankoh was given amnesty from well-deserved war crimes charges, a place in government and control of diamond mines -- in exchange for a promise to disarm." Now, the editorial continues, "the [U.S.] and the UN are back to the sorry old business of conciliating Mr. Sankoh. A State Department spokesman yesterday said that Mr. Sankoh 'has a chance to play a positive role.' The [U.S.] has dispatched the Reverend Jesse Jackson as an envoy, armed [with] the suspect notion that 'the voice of the RUF in Sierra Leone is Foday Sankoh's voice, and his voice would be a very positive one.' UN officials in Sierra Leone have sounded similar themes."

"This is grotesque," the paper concludes. "The RUF is a criminal gang, soaked in the blood of thousands of civilians whose limbs have been hacked off or who have been killed outright by Mr. Sankoh's thugs. The U.S.-UN effort to restore the peace accord that he has shredded would leave Sierra Leoneans at his mercy indefinitely."

WASHINGTON POST: In Sierra Leone, war is caused by diamonds

A commentary in the Washington Post by Sebastian Malaby explores another important element in the Sierra Leone crisis -- the country's chief natural resource, diamonds. Malaby writes: "The agony of Sierra Leone demonstrates not only that the West has failed to decide when military intervention is justified. It shows its failure to come to grips with the role of natural resources in provoking conflict. [The German military historian] Clausewitz called war 'the pursuit of politics by other means.' But," Malaby says, "war is just as often a device for the pursuit of business. In Sierra Leone, war is caused by diamonds."

The commentary continues: "The limb-chopping rebels of the RUF started out in 1991 as a small band. Then they captured the diamond region, got rich and became a very big band. They fight not to win, but to keep hold of the diamond trade. They are like the drug warlords who terrorize Colombia."

Malaby continues: "The latest outbreak of fighting has shown this yet again: It was provoked when UN peacekeepers moved to disarm rebels who control the diamond region. The RUF -- which had been content to play its role as part of the government since last year's peace deal -- was suddenly content no more. It killed four UN soldiers, took a few hundred hostage, and the civil war began again. If Sierra Leone had no diamonds," he concludes, "there might well be no rebels, and certainly not such lethal ones."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The UN planning was corrupted by wishful thinking

In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times, Norman Kempster directs his criticisms squarely at the United Nations, writing: "Just 12 years after it was judged worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, UN peacekeeping has hit rock bottom in Sierra Leone, with troops so badly equipped and poorly led that they are unable even to protect themselves, let alone a highly vulnerable civilian population. [Supporters] and critics of the world organization [are] grumbling that the UN seems incapable of stopping conflict."

The commentator goes on: "For the West, the UN's loss of credibility presents a stark dilemma: to either put up with atrocities that mock [its] democratic ideals or send in its own troops to punish the [RUF's] brutal thugs, probably suffering casualties in the process." He adds: "Military and political strategists say there is blame enough to go around in the UN's Sierra Leone fiasco. Member countries contributed troops that were too few in number and lacked adequate training, arms and leadership. [The UN] sent the force to Sierra Leone even though [it] knew, or should have known, that it was inadequate."

Commentator Kempster concludes: "In Sierra Leone, UN planning was corrupted by wishful thinking. If the rebels of Sankoh's RUF had abided by a peace agreement they signed in July, the UN force could have been effective in keeping the peace. But all of the evidence pointed the other way. Over the years," he adds, "successful UN operations have almost always involved conflicts where the combatants were tired of fighting but didn't trust their opponents to abide by a peace agreement." That was not the case, he says, in Sierra Leone.

BOSTON GLOBE: Putin's reign may be modeled after an authoritarian regime: free markets without free expression

Commenting today on Vladimir Putin's first official week in office as president of Russia, the Boston Globe says: "Russians and their well-wishers abroad did not have to wait very long for the first premonitions of what life may be like under Putin. The curtain-raiser for the new era suggests that -- as many Russian and foreign analysts have feared -- Putin's reign may be modeled after the authoritarian regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile: free markets without free expression."

The editorial goes on: "Four days after his inauguration, the former KGB colonel sent security troops in ski masks and camouflage outfits on a raid of the Moscow offices of Media-MOST, the independent media conglomerate that had been publishing and broadcasting materials disclosing Kremlin corruption and incompetence and criticizing the conduct of the war in Chechnya." It adds: "[Former Soviet President] Mikhail Gorbachev termed the armed raid on Media-MOST a provocation that 'recalls the methods of the past.' Grigory Yavlinksy, the liberal leader of the Yabloko party, called the crackdown an exercise of 'direct pressure aimed at limiting freedom of the press.'"

The editorial concludes that the U.S. -- with what the paper calls "its sorry history of solicitude for the original Pinochet model of governance -- needs to show solidarity with Russian democrats. [That needs to be done] now, while it is still possible to help them prevent the construction of a police state charged with managing a capitalist Russia."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The topic of crime seems to get under Yakovlev's skin

In a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Daniel Broessler assesses the character, record and alleged criminal ties of Vladimir Yakovlev, who was re-elected governor of Saint Petersburg on Sunday (May 24). Broessler writes from Moscow: "[One way to rile Yakovlev] is to pose a question about Saint Petersburg's dubious reputation among many Russians as the crime capital of the country. Or maybe try to pump him about the recent series of political murders that has rocked Russia's second-biggest city. Those are the moments," he says, "when Yakovlev's pale eyes seem to contrast bizarrely with the dark blush of his face."

The commentator continues: "Yakovlev would rather expound on his city's low unemployment rate and high level of foreign investment. That the topic of crime seems to get under [his] skin, however, could have something to do with the persistent rumors about his contacts [with the city's] underworld." Broessler says that "strange coincidences fuel such speculations," particularly Yakovlev's absence from his office -- sometimes from the city -- when apparent political crimes have taken place.

"This knack for making himself scarce," he argues, "caused Yakovlev's predecessor, Anatoly Sobchak, to inquire pointedly how it was 'that Yakovlev is always, strangely enough, on the road whenever there's an important attack.'" The commentator adds: "When Sobchak died of a heart attack in February, many believed Yakovlev's intrigues had driven him to his grave."

Broessler concludes: "It was only fitting that Sobchak's funeral [was] a who's who of Russia's political elite -- with the exception of Yakovlev. Sobchak's widow had expressly forbidden him to attend."