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Western Press Review: Impact of the Kursk Disaster; German Extremism

Prague 21 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today continues to concentrate on the tragedy of Russia's sunken nuclear submarine Kursk, whose 118 seamen -- according to Russian officials -- are thought not to have survived the accident more than a week ago. Several analysts focus on the impact of the accident on both the Russian leadership and people, as well as its implications for future military policy. There are also a few comments today on Germany's problems with the extreme right in the eastern part of the country.


Britain's Times daily writes of the Kursk in an editorial: "Russian authorities have themselves to blame [for the people's anger at their treatment of the incident]. By yesterday, they were trying to recoup what has been a political and public relations disaster. Belatedly, the agony of the relatives [of the seamen] has been recognized and medical and psychological support provided by a hospital ship. But, "the paper adds, "the bitterness will linger. As in Soviet times, power has seemed indifferent to human anguish."

The editorial continues: "The worst of impressions has been created by the fact that it took a sizeable payment from a newspaper to officials, rather than the natural consideration of the state, for the identities of those on board the stricken Kursk to be released. "And," it adds, "Mr. Putin badly misjudged his role if he thought that continuing his holiday while Russia experienced its worst ever naval disaster would make him look calm under pressure; as he now appears to see, it simply made him look callous."

The paper then shifts to another aspect of the Kursk disaster -- possible environmental contamination. It writes: "The fate of the Kursk also raises questions for non-Russians. Limiting the possibility of nuclear contamination from the shattered wreck is the first concern. [The] Russian authorities," it says, "were too slow to accept British and Norwegian assistance in the rescue attempt. They should be prepared to accept all useful offers of help in the next task -- making the wreck safe by salvaging the submarine's twin reactors."


In a news analysis for The Los Angels Times, Maura Reynolds sees both good and bad repercussions from the Kursk disaster.

Writing from Moscow, she says: "If Russia's military command has learned nothing else from the Kursk disaster, it has learned this: secrecy backfires. And if President Vladimir Putin and Russia's political leadership have learned nothing else, they have learned this: appearances matter."

She goes on: "Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ongoing drama over the fate of the 118 [seamen] trapped aboard the sunken nuclear submarine is not the apparent slowness in launching the rescue operation, the delay in requesting foreign assistance or the failure of the president to take charge of the situation -- or even to end his vacation. The most remarkable aspect, rather, may be that the Russian people became enraged and demanded a better performance and higher accountability. And they got them."

"In many ways," Reynolds continues, "the Kursk submarine disaster has been an object lesson in democracy for this country and its leadership. Consider," she says, "how different the situation was during the country's last nuclear disaster -- the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl power plant in what is now the independent state of Ukraine. Even though the policy of glasnost, or 'openness,' was already underway," she recalls, "Soviet leaders kept silent about the accident for three days, until they were forced to respond to an outcry from the West. This time, the outcry came from within [Russia]. It was the main topic of conversation from kitchens to taxicabs to bus stops."


In the Wall Street Journal Europe, Alan Cullison and Andrew Higgins discuss what they call "Moscow's military dilemma" in the light of the Kursk tragedy. They write in a news analysis: "The likely death of all 118 sailors aboard one of Russia's most modern nuclear submarines highlights the perils of Moscow's attempts to maintain its rank as a global military power on the back of a bantam-weight economy that, while now growing again, is the same size as Belgium's. The disaster in the Barents Sea," they say, "could accelerate a much-discussed but sluggishly implemented review of Russia's military priorities. "

The analysis goes on to say: "Russia's armed forces have had to deal with other lethal mishaps in the past. [The] Northern Fleet's main base at Severomorsk, a restricted military zone north of Murmansk, is clogged with the rusting hulks of aging ships." But, they add, "the Kursk disaster suggests the rot runs even deeper than had earlier been thought. Commissioned in 1995, the submarine had been the pride of the Northern Fleet. Last autumn, it sailed to the Atlantic and Mediterranean to snoop on U.S. vessels on exercises."

The analysis adds: "Mr. Putin now faces a stark choice: increase spending or re-allocate the limited funds available. A sharp increase in funding would blow a hole in Russia's budget and jeopardize a robust economic recovery since the country's economic crisis of August 1998. This is unlikely to happen. [More] likely," they say, "is a re-division of existing funds -- an issue that earlier this summer led to a bitter and unusually public quarrel between the country's two most senior generals."


The Norwegian daily Aftenposten writes: "A week after the Kursk nuclear submarine sank, one theory about the reasons for the disaster replaces another other: Russia's military leaders release information bit by bit, and each bit often contradicts a previous one. [Russia's] leaders," the paper says in an editorial, "still have to explain why they allowed things to go so badly wrong.

"It is obvious," the editorial continues, "that because of its strapped economy Russia's Northern Fleet has abandoned much of its safety measures and has almost given up training deep-water rescue divers. The fleet still harbors great military ambitions," it adds, "but lacks the economic resources to maintain a balanced military machine."

The paper concludes: "Russia's antiquated military machine has behaved in accordance with traditions that date back to Soviet times. As a former intelligence officer, President Putin also belongs to this machine. But," it adds, "some things in Russia have changed. The old-time leaders have to deal with the [relatively] free media that ask awkward questions and express uncomfortable opinions. It will be much more difficult for the rulers to answer the questions and argue the opinions than to just gag the press as their predecessors would have done."


Turning to Germany, two newspapers today comment on the growing incidence of far-right violence in the country's eastern regions and the Berlin government's attempts to deal with them. Britain's Financial Times writes in an editorial: "Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor, is setting out today on a two-week tour of some of the most depressed parts of the east. It is high time that he did so. [West German] politicians," the paper goes on, "have paid too little attention to the social powder-keg in the east. They have allowed a sullen and dependent society to develop, where westerners control the top jobs and subsidies are still needed to provide other employment."

The editorial also says: "The former East German regime certainly did very little to root out latent racism in its own system, preferring simply to point the finger of blame at the west. Its security services conducted a dirty tricks campaign, suggesting that neo-Nazism was still prevalent on the other side of the Wall. They must take a share of the blame."

The paper sums up: "A modest program to fight racism among young people is welcome, but a small part of the answer. Banning neo-Nazi organizations is only likely to drive them underground. Most important," it says, "is reviving a sense of pride, independence and entrepreneurship amongst young east Germans so that they can become full participants in German society. They need to know that they belong, so they do not seek to deny the right to strangers."


In the Wall Street Journal Europe, German affairs analyst Daniel Johnson puts even more of the blame on the old East German regime. He writes: "As the Cold War recedes into the past and confidential documents that escaped the shredder a decade ago come to light, some of its most persistent and pernicious myths are disintegrating. The latest revelations from the Gauck archives -- which hold documents from the Stasi, the East German secret police -- suggest that the Stasi supported, funded and trained neo-Nazi groups in West Germany."

Johnson goes on: "One of the most notorious neo-Nazi networks, the Hoffmann Combat Sport Group, was enabled by the Stasi to train with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon -- exactly like the Red Army Faction -- or Baader-Meinhof Gang -- on the far left, which was also manipulated by the Stasi. And," he adds, "just as the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinians at the 1972 Munich Olympics was justified by left-wing terrorists such as Ulrike Meinhof -- who hated Zionism with all the virulence of Nazi anti-Semitism -- so the Hoffmann Group justified its murder of a Jewish publisher in 1982."

The commentator argues further: "The tactical aim of the neo-Nazi exercise was to destabilize and discredit West Germany, already saturated with disinformation designed to reinforce the impression that a new far-right cadre was being indoctrinated by unrepentant ex-Nazis." He then says: "Preying on a postwar 'skeptical generation' which was vulnerable to such propaganda -- as demonstrated by the sustained and highly successful operation to infiltrate and manipulate left-wing student agitators and terrorists -- the Stasi created periodic outbreaks of mass hysteria in the Bonn republic from the 1960s to the 1980s."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)