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Western Press Review: Putin's Russia; Central Asia; Yugoslavia

Prague, 28 July 2000 (RFE/RL) - Several Western press commentators today discuss recent developments in Russia, particularly President Vladimir Putin's growing dominance of the country's political scene. There are also comments on personality cults in Central Asia and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's strategy for remaining in power in Belgrade.

Financial Times:

Britain's Financial Times writes of "Putin's Power" in an editorial. Russia's "Putin," says the paper, "is stamping his authority on the Russian presidency. Less than three months after his inauguration, he has curbed the power of Russia's regional governors and oligarchs, and pushed through the most significant tax reform package the country has seen for many years."

The editorial goes on to say that Russia's regional governors have been Putin's main targets. But it notes, too, his "crackdown on Russia's oligarchs, the business barons who control vast swathes of the economy, which has been more conspicuous but is perhaps of less substance. The question," the paper says, "is how Mr. Putin uses his power. The tax reform package is an encouraging sign. Russia's tax system is to be significantly simplified, and many tax rates will be cut."

But the paper adds that, "while Mr. Putin's authoritarian tendencies may, for now at least, be good news for economic reform, they bode far less well for progress on human rights. Russia's new president has made a welcome start in the task of modernizing Russia's corrupt and distorted economy. The greatest risk," it concludes, "is that Mr. Putin's success in taming his opponents could lead to abuse of the very significant power he now holds."

Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal Europe also comments on Putin's imposition of reduced powers on Russia's regional governors. In its editorial, the paper writes: Few Russians would shed a tear for the defeat handed to regional governors on Wednesday. Most Russians agree with Putin that a strong central power is necessary to keep Russia together, overcome its economic troubles and restore its place as a global power to be reckoned with."

Discussing the Federation Council's action, the paper says that "the upper house, dominated by the governors under the Yeltsin formulation, turned out to be something less than a body of Jeffersonian federalists. Most of Russia's 89 regional leaders," it adds, "behave as mini-czars, themselves paying little attention to democratic processes when they can get by with it."

But the editorial notes that, "both as regional leaders and members of the upper house, the governors constituted an important check on federal power. That check," it says, "is, for now at least, effectively neutralized." The paper concludes: "All this leaves a great deal more power in the hands of Vladimir Putin, a president who has so far shown himself to be intolerant of dissent and impatient with restraints on his authority."


Norway's Aftenposten daily says "Putin has emerged as a leader who is able to score a success at a critical time." The paper's editorial says: "Without any coherent domestic policy agenda, during the past week Putin was able to pass both a very important tax reform and an administrative reform that limits the powers of the regional governments. While Putin is being praised at international meetings such as the G-8 summit in Okinawa, he quietly accomplished a number of important feats within his own country's borders."

"Putin," the paper says further, "is a man who does what he has said he would. The disintegration of Russia's central power has contributed to the political and economic crisis in the country's regions. The central problem for Putin has been to find the balance between enhanced authority in the capital and the kind of political variety and independence in the regions that is essential to any democracy."

As for the tax reform, Aftenposten says that "has been needed by both the evolving market economy and by individual citizens who have been crying out for a modicum of social and political security. For eight years," it sums up, "Putin's predecessor failed to enact such a reform. It is obvious that Putin has so far acted in a far more rational manner on the matter compared to Yeltsin."

Sueddeutsche Zeitung:

In the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Susanne Landwehr says in a commentary that "it's time for Russia to graduate from its role as a borrower nation." She notes that last month "Russia and Germany signed a bilateral agreement to settle the question of debts amassed by the Soviet Union, some $3.8 billion in interest payments that Russia failed over the last three years to pay Germany, its biggest creditor."

The commentator goes to say that this is a relatively good time for Russia to begin to settle its debt to Germany. "The high price of oil, has contributed to a budget surplus of $24 billion." In addition, Landwehr writes, Russian "revenues are now rising consistently and, according to official statistic, Russia's gross domestic product rose by more than 7 percent in the first half of this year. Its Central Bank was able to use the petro-dollars to more than double its gold and currency reserves to over $20 billion."

She concludes: "If Russia is serious about shedding its image as a borrower nation, it could do worse than pay its debts. With an economic program underway at last, all the Russian government needs now is to decide how to get the country entirely back on its feet. But that is still some way off."

Another commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, this one by Frank Nienhuysen, discusses personality cults in Central Asia. "Life in impoverished Central Asia," he writes, "can be good -- provided, that is, one occupies a high post, preferably that of president. Kazakhstan's head of state, Nursultan Nazarbaev, for example, can steal bread to his heart's content, ignore speed limits in his limousine and, if that were not enough, diddle his insurance company as well."

"How does he get away with it?" the commentator asks. "No problem," he says, "if you're the president of sprawling Kazakhstan. At the end of last week, Nazarbayev had his rubber-stamp legislature pass a law that exempts him from prosecution for any crime -- with the exception of high treason -- for the rest of his natural life."

Nienhuysen writes further: "Nazarbayev's colleague in neighboring Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, has it even better. At the end of December, his compliant parliament named him president-for-life and thus the most autocratic of all Central Asia's potentates. Turkmenistan," he goes on, "undoubtedly boasts the grandest personality cult around its president, with giant portraits of Niyazov gracing virtually every important location in the country. Its president has held all the reins of power in his hands." And he adds: "That also applies to the other presidents in the region: Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Imomali Rakhmonov in Tajikistan and Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan."

Irish Times:

In the Irish Times today, Gillian Sandford says in a commentary that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has once again "outwitted his opponents" in electoral strategy. She writes: "Milosevic changed the electoral ground rules and, with a split opposition, seems destined to win elections in what remains of Yugoslavia."

The commentator goes on: "Milosevic appeared on state television to sign the election decree yesterday." She adds: "Recent legislation passed in the parliament -- dominated by parties in the ruling coalition -- has changed the constitution of the federation and the voting system. These alterations have massively strengthened Mr. Milosevic's hand." She argues: "At the same time, they have dramatically weakened the status of Montenegro, Serbia's sister state within the federation. They have exposed the vulnerability of its pro-West President Milo Djukanovic and effectively force him to chose between returning his territory into the embrace of Mr. Milosevic's federation or moving toward independence, which raises the specter of war."

Under the new electoral system, Sandford notes, "Milosevic could remain in power until 2008. Also, a changed voting system in the federal poll dramatically affects the vote for members of the upper house of the parliament, the Chamber of Republics. Previously, separate assemblies in Montenegro and Serbia each selected 20 of the chamber's 40 deputies. Under the new system, all deputies will be elected by popular vote. There are 8 million people in Serbia and 600,000 in Montenegro. So it makes it far easier for Mr. Milosevic to push politicians loyal to him."

Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to our report.