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Western Press Review: The Kursk Disaster, Lieberman's Debut

Prague, 17 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The fate of the crippled Russian nuclear submarine Kursk -- which sunk to the bottom of the Barents Sea over the past weekend -- continues to preoccupy Western press commentators. Analysts again concentrate on the event's implications for Russian military policy and for the prestige of President Vladimir Putin, who has strongly advocated a revival of Russian naval strength. There are also comments today on last night's speech to the Democratic Party's convention by its vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman, a centrist senator from the eastern state of Connecticut who is the first Jewish American to run for the country's second-highest post.


The Wall Street Journal Europe says "the tragedy of the Kursk should force a rethinking of Russia's defense needs." The paper writes in an editorial: "Sadly, but not surprisingly, [Russian] pride and politics have become wrapped up in this tragedy. [The Russian] authorities reaction was no doubt colored by the Soviet tradition in which most were trained. According to this code," the editorial goes on, "a broad view of the 'national' interest is valued over individual life. Crises are seen as embarrassments to be buried as quickly and quietly as possible."

"This reflex," the paper says further, "so evident in the aftermath of Chernobyl [in 1986], clearly still exists. Russian statements," it adds, "that the [Kursk's] grounding happened on Sunday were contradicted, [for example,] by sophisticated naval monitors in Norway, who said the Kursk sank on Saturday. [And] repeated offers of [outside] help were brushed aside by official statements that 'everything is under control.'"

The paper notes, however, that "by yesterday, it clearly wasn't [under control] and Russia began to swallow its pride [when President Putin announced he was accepting foreign assistance.] Putin," it says, "is far too pragmatic a man to allow institutional ego to [triumph over] concern for the lives of Russian [sailors] at this stage."


In its editorial on the Kursk, the Irish Times recalls the 19th century Russian writer Aleksandr Herzen, who, it says, "once referred to what he described as the "eternal Russian questions -- 'What is to be done?' and 'Who is to be blamed?'" In the case of the Kursk disaster, the paper says, "the first [question] can be answered quickly. A thorough investigation into the disaster should begin immediately. It should be set up in such a way that it is impervious to sectional interest. It should be rigorous and interested only in ascertaining precisely what caused such a tragedy."

"The second question," the editorial goes on, "cannot be answered until this investigation has been carried out, but there are extremely important aspects of the affair which need to be examined carefully. Reports in the official Russian media that old batteries providing just three hours of power to the rescue craft in their early dives suggests a major bungling of the initial stages of the operation."

Then the paper reminds readers: "Shortly before the latest tragic incident, ill-timed posters extolling the power of the navy began to appear on Moscow's avenues and boulevards with the message 'Forward Russia.' The navy has now received the same type of blow to its morale as that which befell the army after Afghanistan and Chechyna." It concludes: "Mr. Putin has so far distanced himself from the bad news by remaining at his holiday home at the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the extent of the crisis. Independent media have confined themselves so far to criticism of the military's handling of the tragedy. They may soon turn their attention to the president."


The Norwegian daily Norway Aftenposten calls "the Kursk accident first and foremost a personal tragedy." It goes on" "Russian families who have to live through the nightmare of their next-of-kins' attempts to survive fully deserve our sympathy and understanding. As a neighboring country only several kilometers away from the location of the accident," the editorial goes on, "Norway could not but offer its unconditional support to save the lives of Russian submarine crew."

"Still," the paper goes on -- echoing the Wall Street Journal Europe -- "the way the Russian government handled the crisis is indicative of today's Russia. It is a Russia that has not changed much," the paper says. "First and foremost, it is clear that safety in the Russian navy is far below what we are used to in the West. Second, as was true during the Cold War, it took the Russian authorities a long time to concede there had been an accident at all."


In Denmark, the daily Berlingske Tidende also says that "the Kursk drama focuses international attention on what can euphemistically be termed the unsatisfactory safety standards in the Russian armed forces. Even though the Kursk submarine belongs to a newer generation of vessels that have only been used during the past five years, the larger part of Russia's population saw the incident as a reminder of the vanished dignity of the former superpower."

"Russia," the paper adds, "continues to maintain armed forces it cannot afford. The consequences have often been described as unpaid wages to both officers and conscripts, rusty weapons and corruption [in the military ranks. Now,] the Kursk incident shows that the most hazardous part of the Russian military is also falling apart."

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's speech to his party's Los Angeles convention last night evokes several comments in the U.S. press. Here are excerpts from two major national newspapers:


Under the heading "Mr. Lieberman's Debut," the Washington Post says that "[he] introduced himself to the American people last night [as] a classic American story -- the first in his family to graduate from college, the son of a father who worked nights and a mother who valued family and education. Much has been made of his status as the first Jew nominated by a major party for president or vice president," the paper adds, "but his message was the universality of the American dream and of the values that motivate him -- faith, family, hard work, public service, equal opportunity."

Lieberman's reputation for integrity, the paper goes on, "stems in part from questioning policies that remain sacrosanct in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Since his selection, the [campaign of the Republican nominee George Bush] has even portrayed Mr. Lieberman as closer to its views than to [those of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore] -- somehow not a real Democrat. So," it says, "last night Mr. Lieberman portrayed himself as very much in the mainstream of Democratic thinking. He wrapped himself in the language of civil rights and a fair distribution of national prosperity."

The editorial also notes: "There was no mention [in Lieberman's speech] of President [Bill] Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky scandal, which the senator bravely criticized in the past."


The New York Times writes in its editorial: "Mr. Lieberman's emotional speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination sought to move the party beyond its tributes to the Clinton era and to present a new ticket with its own agenda and less baggage. [It] was a blend of personal reminiscence and condemnation of Republican [Party] policies. It was a forceful effort," the paper adds, "clearing the way for Mr. Gore's all-important address tonight."

The editorial says further: "Just as it was a tricky exercise for Mr. Lieberman to assail Mr. Clinton's conduct [in the Lewinsky affair] as immoral and also vote against his removal from office, so has it been a balancing act for him to speak openly of his deep religious conviction without crossing the boundary that separates religion from the affairs of state. As the first Jew to be nominated for vice president by a major party," the paper goes on, "he paid tribute to his immigrant grandparents and to the 'only-in-America' quality of his selection. Then he moved on to a combined moral and economic message that will become a main Democratic theme. It is not 'the size of our national feast that is important,' he said, 'but the number of people we can fit around the table -- there must be room for everybody.'"

The editorial then says: "Mr. Lieberman spoke fervently of his long admiration for and friendship with Mr. Gore, as well as the 'private moments of prayer' he had shared with him. But," it concludes, "if Mr. Gore is to make an impression on the public this week and walk out of the shadow of Mr. Clinton and the waves of nostalgia that have washed over the convention since last weekend, that work still belongs mainly to one person. His turn will come tonight."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)