Accessibility links

Breaking News

Western Press Review: Putin's Russia, EU's Future, Democracy

Prague, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our selection of today and Sunday's Western press commentary touches on three subjects. They are the state of Russia under President Vladimir Putin, a high-level conference on democracy that opened today in Warsaw, and current Franco-German efforts to accelerate further European Union integration.


"Let us hear no more about the enigmatic Vladimir Putin," urges Russia-affairs analyst Harry Kopp in a commentary for the New York Times. He writes: "[Putin] is an autocrat in a tough spot, looking for order. [U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright called him 'one of Russia's leading reformers.' So he is, but with a hyphen. His purpose is to re-form Russia, bringing it into the modern era as a non-ideological descendant of its Soviet predecessor."

The commentator goes on: "[Putin's] search for order begins with the construction of a pyramid of support, built Lenin-style from the top down. The vertical of power, as Russians call it, places the president firmly in charge of the federal government and the federal government firmly in charge of pretty much everything else. The effort to concentrate power places Mr. Putin in opposition to forces that got out of hand during Boris Yeltsin's frequently horizontal presidency: ethnic regions, oligarchs, and independent media."

He adds: "The first targets are likely to be ethnic republics whose constitutions assert local sovereignty: Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Bashkortostan, Komi, Kabardin-Balkaria, Tatarstan, Tuva, and Yakutia. The Chechnya campaign and its popularity among Russians have softened up the ethnic leaders, making them slow to defend their positions." As for the oligarchs, Kopp argues that Putin owes most of them -- and particularly Boris Berezovsky -- what he calls "a large political debt."

Kopp says that "the most difficult post-Soviet outburst [for Putin] to contain may be freedom of expression. For all Mr. Putin's energy, toughness and competence," he concludes, "the object of his endeavor is less than noble. If he succeeds, Russia in five or 10 years may have the political pluralism of Mexico in the 1980s, the family-friendly economics of Indonesia in the 1990s, and the most-holds-barred press freedom of today's China. The result may be a happier place than most adult Russians have known, but far short of the hopes that stirred so many just 10 years ago."


In the Washington Post, foreign-affairs columnist Jim Hoagland says that "Putin has decided to follow the Korean model in rebuilding Russia. The problem is," Hoagland adds, "he can't decide which Korea." Writing from Moscow, the commentator says that barbed joke was being told in the Russian capital even before the jailing of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky earlier this month blew up into a political storm that, he says, "diminished President Putin's reputation. The jokers portray Mr. Putin as representing the worst of all worlds: an inept would-be autocrat uninterested in strengthening Russia's rough-hewn democracy but incapable of stifling it."

Hoagland argues that what was most striking about Putin's handling of Gusinsky's arrest was what he calls "[the president's] determined use of the Soviet-era tactic of repetition of obvious lies that the public is told to accept and pretend to believe. Public acquiescence," the columnist continues, "is then cited abroad as substantiation of the original lie." He says that "the Clinton administration's protestations that [no final judgment can yet be made on Putin] wear thin in the light of the Gusinsky affair."

Hoagland urges the U.S. president and other Western leaders, in his words, "to focus on Mr. Putin's attempt to use the prestige that they lend him to reinforce abusive power at home." He concludes: "The word in Moscow is that Mr. Putin has instructed his envoys to demand full Russian participation in all phases of the Okinawa Group of Eight summit meeting in July, although Russia's economy does not qualify it for such treatment. The trends in Moscow strongly argue for a joint 'nyet' to that."


Writing in the International Herald Tribune, columnist Flora Lewis says: "Alexander Yakovlev -- who developed the idea which became the Soviet Union's perestroika -- urges alarmed attention now to the campaign being promoted by former KGB officials and their sympathizers to restore the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky [founder of the Cheka, the KGB's predecessor, in Moscow's] Lubyanka Square. It is a matter of symbolism," she continues -- citing Yakovlev's remarks at a recent meeting in Helsinki -- "but of the most dangerous, perverse kind. [Yakovlev] is right to warn the West as well as his Russian compatriots."

Lewis goes on: "To some [in Russia] who put hard-fisted order ahead of liberty, there is nostalgia for what Russians call the 'organs' of security, the rule of power unchallenged rather than the rule of law. It is not a matter of Marxist ideology but of absolutism. Such people hope that [Putin] will put the statue back."

Yakovlev, Lewis adds, believes "that Lenin and Stalin were war criminals, and that Bolshevism was in fact a form of fascism. [He came] to realize soon after World War II that the system was bad," she says, "but alas that dissidents and opponents could never change it." She quotes Yakovlev as saying: "Reform had to come from the top. A totalitarian system can only be changed in a totalitarian way."


Also in the Washington Post, analyst Robert Kagan says that the Community of Democracies conference that opened in Warsaw today "seems a bit anachronistic. These days," he writes, "it is the dictators who are in vogue. In life and in death, the Kim Jong Ils and Hafez Assads get more respectful press than the world's elected leaders."

Kagan continues: "This week's democracy conference has the worthy goal of fostering cooperation to consolidate the many democracies born in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. But promoting democracy where it doesn't exist? That is not part of the agenda. Meanwhile," he adds, "[Chinese President] Jiang Zemin is the toast of the corporate world and of the governments that do its bidding. [Peru's President] Alberto Fujimori is deemed too valuable to be lost to a mere election. Presidents-for-life [Nursultan] Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and [Heidar] Aliyev of Azerbaijan are accorded the respect appropriate to 21st century sultans."

"Even pariahs," Kagan says, "are getting a chance at redemption. Kim Jong Il's smile has the American press swooning and the State Department dropping the word 'rogue' from its vocabulary. Secretary of State Albright has learned that the North Korean is [in her words] "jovial and forthcoming and interested and knowledgeable."

The commentary concludes: "Someday we may pay a price for our present lassitude. The community of dictators works together at least as effectively as the community of democracies. Chinese hard-liner Li Peng just paid a friendly visit to Belgrade bearing millions of dollars in credits for [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic's starving economy. Mr. Milosevic, meanwhile, may be contemplating a sale of uranium to Iraq."


News analyses in two British dailies discuss current efforts -- led by France and Germany -- to speed up integration within the European Union. In the Financial Times, Quentin Peel writes: "A curious thing is happening in the EU. Its consequences will be anything but predictable. They could even be counterproductive. The true bearers of the federalist flame are arguing for something known as flexibility. That means," he explains, "an agreement to disagree -- or the right for a few member states to press ahead with a common policy, even if the rest do not want to join them."

The analysis goes on: "At the EU summit last week, [French President] Jacques Chirac made a remarkable speech. He declared that flexibility was the only way forward for the EU. But it should not be hidebound by the institutions of the past. It should flourish in a multiplicity of forms. The slogan, he declared, was 'de-communitizing,' if such a dreadful word really exists." Peel adds: "The suspicion is that flexibility is a plot by the faithful few -- the six-strong founding family of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, plus a handful of loyal friends -- to create a 'hard core' of true federalists, while the standard-bearers for national sovereignty stay outside."

"That," the analyst says, "is precisely what seems to be worrying the likes of Britain, the Scandinavians, and the accession candidates in Eastern Europe. They do not want to be second-class members of a two-speed EU." He continues: "The trouble is that every time the member states introduce another aspect of flexibility, the whole structure gets further removed from democratic control, and more intergovernmental. That is the real danger of Mr. Chirac's vision of 'de-communitizing.' [Flexibility could simply turn out to] be another way of making [the EU] more bureaucratic, and less intelligible to its citizens. Unless," he concludes, "we insist on democratic control."


In their analysis in the Guardian daily, John Hooper and Jon Henley write that Chirac is backing Germany's vision of a more integrated EU. They say that the French leader's current visit to Berlin "revives the possibility of a pact between Paris and Berlin to set up a two-speed Europe in which Britain [and other members] would be left among the laggards."

The analysis notes that last week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder threw his weight behind an earlier proposal by his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, for an EU federation complete with its own government and parliament. "Schroeder signaled," they add, "the need for a new EU inter-governmental conference to tackle [what he is said to have called] 'the big issues.' The conference, in the Schroeder-Fischer vision, would draft a new constitution for the EU and redistribute power between regional, national, and EU institutions."

The analysts also say that Chirac's speech to the German parliament tomorrow is likely to contain "a major political statement of his longer-term vision for Europe." They note that Chirac has what they call a "record of caution over Europe, but he is under pressure to make a bold move. He and his advisers are already looking ahead to the 2002 presidential election, and one of their difficulties is that his probable opponent, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has repeatedly encroached on territory traditionally regarded as 'presidential.' A noteworthy speech to [the parliament]," they sum up, "would enable him to recover some ground."