Prague, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary touches on a wide range of subjects today. Our selection focuses largely on analysts' views of this week's summit (June 20-21) in Moscow of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS -- and particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin's role in the meeting. There are also comments on efforts by Germany to speed up the European Union's internal reforms -- needed for its projected expansion to the East -- and on rumors of a possible deal between the West and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Under the heading "Russia's imperial yearning," Britain's Economist weekly says that Putin sought a bigger role for Russia at the CIS summit. In a news analysis, the magazine expresses doubts that Putin can, in its words, "hope to recover the power Russia had over the rest of the Soviet Union before communism collapsed a decade ago. Even so," it writes, "across Russia's old domain, the balance of power may be shifting. Under Mr. Putin, Russia could continue to lose influence in some parts of the empire, but claw back a bit in others. And in some places, such as the Caucasus, there is still much to play for. Russia's power there is waning, but the Kremlin still wields much influence."
The analysis continues: "Seen from the Kremlin, the Balts have gone, probably for good, as they eagerly head toward membership of the EU and perhaps, one day, even NATO. Even puny Moldova," it adds," is loathe to clasp Mr. Putin's hand of friendship too tightly, [while] Ukraine is fiercely striving to stay out of Russia's orbit, despite its dependence on Russian energy." According to the Economist, it is in Central Asia that Russia has recently recovered the most ground.
The analysis goes on to say: "CIS summits are usually long on words and short on deeds. But this week, at Russia's behest, the leaders agreed to set up a joint 'anti-terrorism center' in Moscow, headed by a Russian from the FSB, the internal-security successor of the KGB. It also set yet another deadline for a free-trade zone within the CIS, this time for the end of this year." It concludes: "All this is a long way from a revival of the power that the Kremlin used to wield. But it is clear that Russian influence is still hefty."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
In a commentary for the Wall Street Journal Europe, analyst Vladimir Socor writes that Putin's effort to cast Russia in the role of leader of a bloc of states at the CIS meeting -- in his word -- "misfired." Socor says that's because "few if any of the other 11 [CIS member-states] would forfeit their independence."
Apart from the new anti-terrorism program, Socor finds the meeting to be most noteworthy because, he says, "for the time Moscow felt emboldened to drop the pretense that its peacekeeping operations are 'CIS' operations, as opposed to purely Russian ones." He notes: "Russian army troops in Tajikistan, [for example,] officially changed their status during the summit, from 'CIS peacekeeping troops' to simply Russian forces in Tajikistan."
Socor also says that Putin is seeking "to create a South Caucasus regional security forum of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Russia's influence," he continues, "would clearly predominate in such a forum -- dubbed 'the Caucasus Four' by Moscow -- [which suggests] an attempt to marginalize the West's role [in the area]. But," the analyst sums up, "[the four states involved] and other CIS countries continue to resist the re-imposition of sphere-of-influence arrangements in the defunct Soviet Union. The rest of the world has no less interest in avoiding such a relapse."
In Denmark, the daily Politiken writes in an editorial: "Even before he was elected Russia's president, Vladimir Putin was installed as head of the CIS. The leaders of the 11 other former Soviet republics hoped that the young, energetic leader could pump some life into their dying organization. But," the paper argues, "his first summit as Russia's president suggests nothing of the kind."
The editorial continues: "The present tendency among CIS states is to seek cooperation with countries other than Russia, and that tendency is likely to grow. Many CIS members have already begun to look toward Turkey, China, Iran and the EU for new opportunities for [economic] cooperation opportunities." "This," says the paper, "is too bad for all parties concerned -- for the CIS states because they seem to be destroying long-established trade and economic relations, for the EU because an economically effective structure in the East would make its planned expansion easier."
Politiken also says: "The biggest hindrance to effective cooperation within the CIS is Moscow's refusal to treat its partners as equals. Russia's recent decision to introduce visas for some of the CIS nations is another indication that n-o effort to change the status quo can be expected from the Kremlin any time soon."
In its current issue, the Economist magazine also carries an editorial assessing President Putin's record in office three months after his election. It says: "Some ugly things have been happening in his benighted [that is, darkened] country. The new man, a former KGB officer, has been cracking his whip. He has sounded belligerent toward several of Russia's former vassal states on its rim, and shows little sign of softening towards Chechnya, the rebel republic devastated at his command." Putin, the editorial goes on, "has told the leaders of the outlying regions within Russia that they must step back into the Kremlin's line -- or else. And he has frightened the press by resorting to the bullying of media groups and journalists critical of the new regime."
"Yet," the magazine argues, "it is still possible to paint a less bleak picture. After eight years with the wayward Boris Yeltsin fitfully in charge," it notes, "[Russia now] has a cooperative parliament that broadly backs a coalition government in which economic reformers seem to have been given their head. And," it goes on, "Mr. Putin's approach to foreigners may also be reaping rewards: stalled arms-cutting deals with [the U.S.] are again being struck. Once again, Western leaders are giving a new Russian tsar the benefit of doubt. "
But the editorial says that "those good things come with nasty addenda, such as an upsurge of authoritarian intolerance at home and a crescendo of snarls abroad, that -- so the Putin-boosters argue -- is the price to be paid for reviving a humiliated and pauperized Russia. In the long run, it will be better for the world if the country becomes prosperous and confident, however roughly that is achieved. Only then, say those who see the merit of Putin [acting like former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet, might Russia become something it has never been -- a law-based and liberal society."
The Economist sums up: "No government money from the West should go to Mr. Putin's Russia [until he proves his democratic credentials]. A better home for Western cash can be found among the more hopeful countries on Russia's rim. Things may change [in Russia], but, for the time being at least, Mr. Putin remains on probation."
Turning to the EU, a news analysis in Britain's Guardian says that "Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, has signaled his intention to accelerate European integration. Berlin," write John Hooper and Ian Black, "wants talks to take place by 2004 to tackle the 'big issues,' including the difficult relationship between the EU and the nation state. [It] is proposing the most fundamental rewriting yet of the European community's founding charter, the 1958 Treaty of Rome."
According to the analysts, "the big issues" include the writing of a new EU constitution, changes in the balance of power within the union, and changes in the divisions of responsibilities among regional authorities, national governments and EU institutions. They add: "The talks [Schroeder is proposing] would also have to reach a decision on creating an 'inner core' of EU states, ready and willing to blaze a trail toward full political union. This was at the crux of proposals aired last month in a controversial speech by Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer."
They go on to say: "The forum that would carry forward the changes sought by Berlin is an inter-governmental conference, which could last months or even years. Proponents want it to get under way as soon as a far more modest set of reforms -- due to be approved at the union's Nice summit in December -- are ratified by national parliaments, likely to take at least two years." They Guardian commentators add: "Germany's ambitions were clear during this week's summit [in] Portugal, when Mr. Schroeder and France's president, Jacques Chirac, upbraided [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair for opposing a 'two-speed Europe' and said that a Britain [remaining] outside the [EU's] single currency was already in the slow lane."
NEW YORK TIMES:
Finally, a commentary in the New York Times by Balkan specialist Misha Glenny says that "it may seem far-fetched that, [as recent news reports suggest,] the U.S. and some of its allies have put out feelers to Slobodan Milosevic offering a so-called exit strategy -- a deal whereby the Yugoslav president would be excused an appearance at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague in exchange for his getting out of the Balkans." Yet, he adds, "despite the furious denials from Washington and elsewhere this week, this is a serious policy. Or rather, this is what masquerades as a serious policy."
"In reality," Glenny goes on, "it is a sign of desperation. It reflects the deep concern in Europe and America that NATO's Balkans policy has been drifting badly in recent months. It also reflects a growing feeling that isolating Mr. Milosevic, which was an appropriate moral response during the Kosovo war, has closed any political options. The West has zero leverage on Mr. Milosevic at a time when security in the Balkans is again deteriorating."
The commentator says further: "The exit strategy is not going to work. But it has served an important function by highlighting the absence of any coherent U.S. or European policy in the Balkans." The real solution, he adds, "is expensive and difficult, but fortunately for the U.S., it is primarily Europe's responsibility. President Milo Djukanovic's regime in Montenegro should be bolstered with serious money. If not, support for the West's most important ally in federal Yugoslavia will slip. And the EU must demonstrate a greater commitment to the integration of countries like Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria."
He continues: "When officials from these countries inquire when they may be admitted to the union, they receive only evasive answers They are worried that the eastward expansion of the union is slowing down, leading ordinary people to become disaffected with the West." Glenny predicts: "Mr. Milosevic's source of power will dry up when Serbia's neighbors start making some visible economic progress."
(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)