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Western Press Review: The Internet, Putin, And Elian

Prague, 29 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on topics of control -- control over the Internet, control over Russia's regions, and control over the fate of Elian Gonzales.


In the United Kingdom, Home Secretary Jack Straw has said laws to penetrate the Internet are needed to counter all sorts of tax evasion, financial fraud, and other skullduggery going on behind secret passwords and layers of encrypted script.

In an analysis in the Daily Telegraph called "Does Straw know what he's taking on?" Adrian Berry says, "Straw seems determined to embark upon a struggle against the Internet, which is fast becoming one of the world's mightiest powers. His Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill threatens to bring about a Draconian curtailment of our liberties. With the probably futile aim of catching criminals, it will force all service providers with bases in Britain to install connections to MI5, [the British intelligence service], allowing government officials to read our e-mails without a warrant, to see who is e-mailing whom and what they are saying."

The writer says it will even be a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison, to refuse to disclose passwords and encryption keys to officials.

The British government, Berry says, is mistaken if it thinks that tracking the Internet is as easy as the old-fashioned secret police method of tapping telephones. In his words: "Mr. Straw is likely to discover too late that regulating the Internet is about as easy as regulating the wind and rain. And his enemy, if attacked, can hit back, and hit back so hard that his government -- and all future governments -- may be diminished, with their ability to collect taxes significantly impaired."

The commentator points out that U.S. e-mail providers, such as Hotmail, make no distinction between British and American clients and would not abide by the proposed British laws. "To do so," Berry says, "would certainly violate the Fourth Amendment to the American Constitution, which protects the people against 'unreasonable searches' of their 'persons, houses, papers and effects'."

Berry says that the proposed law could make the problem worse by arousing people's curiosity about the possibilities of secret codes. He warns: "The day will come, therefore, if Mr. Straw does not withdraw his ridiculous bill, when millions of people will suddenly discover that with anonymous encrypted email, they are absolutely free from surveillance. A libertarian dream will have been realized. Some will be tempted -- and this is what politicians and bureaucrats most fear -- to conceal their incomes and under-declare them to the taxman. Tax revenue will shrink, and with it Whitehall [the British government]. Perhaps income tax will become voluntary, and people will pay only for the degree of government that they want."


Turning to Russia, commentator Tomas Avenarius writes in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to restore too much central control, saying: "The insight that large states are damned to either tyranny or federalism is not new. But it is still convincing -- even applied to Russia."

He notes: "In the state with the largest land area in the world, governmental experiments have always ended in one or another form of tyranny, be it in the figure of Tsarist oppression or the form of the Soviet hammer."

Boris Yeltsin, Avenarius says, tried to change that by devolving power to the regions, but his successor Vladimir Putin wants to return to the days of strong central government. Avenarius concedes that the current system is flawed. In his words: "Many governors rule their regions completely alone, every four years organizing elections that don't deserve the name and keeping the media tightly in line. All this plays out on a background of a Russia that has always been a centralized state and until the reform period of the late 19th century had absolutely no experience with regional self-government."

But still, he says, a return to complete central authority would be a mistake. "In the first place," he posits, "federalism in Russia could, with time, develop into a functioning system. In the second place, Russia has always suffered under centralized power." And finally, he offers, the badly functioning federal system offers some protection against something even worse. "Behind Putin's centralism scenario," Avenarius warns, "a darker outline is being drawn."

The German commentator cites press reports that say Putin is planning to revamp the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, as well, stripping the body of any party-list seats. Representatives of single-mandate districts, not attached to parties, would be easier to control. And Avenarius notes Putin's frequent choice of former military or secret police officers to fill civilian posts.

He concludes: "The danger exists that the 'strong state' of secret police officer Putin will become an authoritarian state marked by the strong hand of the secret services."

Much press commentary approves of the return to Cuba yesterday of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who has been at the center of a custody dispute between the United States and Cuba that combined high politics and soap opera.

Elian was fished out of the waters off the U.S. Florida coast last November after his mother and others drowned fleeing Cuba. He became the subject of a tug-of-war between his father, who wanted him back in Cuba, and extended family members living in Miami, Florida, who wanted to keep him in the U.S. Yesterday, U.S. courts decided the boy should return to Cuba with his father.


A Washington Post editorial says this: "This hard decision, vindicated repeatedly in federal court, was in accord both with immigration law and the common-sense notion that an otherwise fit parent should not be separated from his child for political reasons." The editorial chastises Elian's American relatives, saying: "Thanks largely to the strident and emotionally exploitative way in which Elian's Miami relatives and their supporters fought to keep the boy in Miami, in defiance of federal legal authority, Mr. Castro's chief opponents in this country find themselves weakened and isolated."

The paper says their behavior has also allowed Cuban leader Fidel Castro to portray himself as a winner in a moral battle. "This is ironic," the Washington Post notes. "Mr. Castro reaps political advantage from a case that began with Cubans literally dying to escape him." It adds: "Fundamentally, political repression and economic decay, the hallmarks of Mr. Castro's unreconstructed communism, are the reasons why Cubans keep trying to sail to a better life. Some come carrying children as young or younger than Elian; thus, extraordinary as it was, there is no guarantee that this case won't be repeated. That sobering fact -- together with the cruel reality that Elian can never be reunited with his mother -- has to temper any satisfaction at the news that father and son are finally back home together."


The Irish Times agrees that the stance of the Miami relatives weakened the U.S. position towards Cuba. "After the many miscalculations made by [the Miami Cuban] community's leaders in the Elian affair," the paper's editorial said, "it will be much more difficult for them to maintain such a hold on U.S. policy."

"Opinion polls," the Irish Times says, "showed that a solid majority of U.S. citizens always believed the child should be returned to his father in Cuba. And that conviction has contributed to a sea-change in attitudes towards Cuba among the U.S. political class, making it easier for the administration to soften or move beyond the 38-year trade embargo on island, imposed during the Cuban missile crisis."

And that is a good thing, the paper argues. In its words: "By taking the line it has, the Clinton administration has opened up a possibility of relaxing the boycott, which has damaged Cuba's people rather than its regime, and of developing greater dialogue and engagement with Cuba. That would help in the longer term to develop a policy capable of dealing more effectively with the inevitable transition in Cuba's affairs when Dr. Castro passes from the scene."


The New York Times also applauds the decision to return Elian, saying: "It was the proper legal conclusion to a bitter family dispute that dragged on for months and drew international attention."

The newspaper's editorial adds: "We have supported the father's right to regain custody of the child and to decide where he should live. The relatives had no business blocking the return of the boy to his father simply because they equated paternal custody with delivering him to Fidel Castro."

The New York Times agrees that the Miami lobby has weakened its position. In the editorial's words: "On the national scene, the anti-Castro lobby has hurt its message by seeming to use a child as a political prop. Perhaps most harmful to that cause is that many Americans came to sympathize with Elian's father and became more aware of America's outdated policy of isolation toward Cuba."

The editorial concludes: "It is perhaps not surprising that just one day before Elian's flight home, the House Republican leaders agreed to end four decades of sanctions on food sales to Cuba. The saga of this Cuban child helped to hasten that shift in policy."

(Susan Caskie contributed to this report.)