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Western Press Review: Kursk Disaster And U.S. Election In Headlines

Prague, 24 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The political repercussions of Russia's Kursk submarine disaster -- particularly for President Vladimir Putin -- and the coming U.S. presidential election are among the subjects continuing to draw comment in the Western press.


In a news analysis for The New York Times, Patrick Tyler writes of a transformed Russia after the submarine affair. Tyler says that with what he calls yesterday's "public confession" by Putin that he feels "responsibility and guilt" for the loss of the Kursk, Russia's political evolution seems to be taking a new kind of post-Soviet turn.

Tyler writes from Moscow: "Military commanders are offering to resign. The government and the private sector are competing to raise millions of dollars for the families of the Kursk's crew. The airwaves are ringing with mea culpas from the haughty admirals of the once mighty Red Banner Fleet of the north.

"And on the surface of the Barents Sea, in case anyone missed it, Russia for the first time cracked open the door to Norwegian and British seamen and asked them to enter the inner sanctum of a powerful cold war leviathan named Kursk and there to help retrieve 118 sons of the lost Soviet empire".

The analysis notes that things had started out differently: "When the Kursk exploded and crashed to the bottom of the Barents Sea on Aug 12, Russians spontaneously reacted with indignation when military leaders dropped into a familiar defensive crouch, distorting and withholding information and paying little heed to the human dimension of the tragedy for the crewmen and their families, many of whom live in rank poverty in Russia's far north.

"And." Tyler goes on, " they were even more appalled when Mr. Putin, instead of rushing home like the disciplined and pragmatic public servant they voted for last March, tarried at his favorite resort on the Black Sea. Day after day he remained there as one of the most extraordinary rescue dramas at sea unfolded. Lives were at risk. Last breaths were being drawn, but still Mr. Putin vacationed."

Tyler writes that the Russian press drew parallels to the Soviet era, and eventually Soviet leaders grudgingly admitted that something had gone terribly wrong: "But in the din of recriminations over the loss of the Kursk and with the sudden awakening of Mr. Putin, what many have missed is the repudiation of the Soviet era [element] that is also present in this crisis".

"Politicians have said officials must be held accountable, but Mr. Putin said [last night] that the old Soviet game of laying blame gratuitously would be set aside. 'It has been like that before,' he said on national television, adding that 'nothing will be done' until 'a full understanding has been gained about what happened and why.'"


In Norway, the Aftenposten daily is far less sure that the effects of the Kursk tragedy on Putin will all be positive. The paper acknowledges in an editorial: "By personally accepting the responsibility for the Kursk disaster, Putin has made the first step in overcoming the kind of crisis of confidence that emerged between the Russian people and its leaders in the aftermath of the submarine incident." But it adds: "[The incident] seriously tarnished Putin's image as supreme commander of the Russian armed forces."

The editorial recalls that Putin "visited the Kola peninsula less than a month prior to the Kursk incident and reaffirmed at the time that Russia had a modern, high-tech Northern fleet. By saying so, he brought to mind the largely unrealistic line that the former Soviet Union tried to follow in the 1970s: expansion and demonstrations of power. That policy," it argues, "caused such great difficulties to the Soviet economy that it simply collapsed at the end of the 1980s. A generation later," the editorial adds, "Moscow's way of thinking does not seem to have changed substantially. The Kremlin appears unable to realize that Russia neither has the resources to maintain huge armed forces nor any real need for them."

The paper concludes: "The Kursk disaster was the beginning of a long-term crisis for Putin and his regime. He is still immune from removal, but he and his associates will be burdened by a powerful symbol: the ambitions of a great power that ended at the bottom of the Barents Sea."


A commentary in the Vienna newspaper Die Presse by Andreas Schwarz returns to the theme of Putin and his ordeal at the hands of angry relatives of the Kursk crew. Schwarz says that it was an unprecedented scene, in which for hours Putin had to hear what the commentator calls "grave accusations, had to defend his handling of the Kursk affair, and had to explain the failings of the military."

Schwarz continues: "For someone like Vladimir Putin, the hastily-arranged meeting with relatives of the Kursk sailors must have been like a passage through hell. Whether that brought the President closer to the hell that the submarine crew and their families went through, is not clear. But," he adds, "we can reckon that Putin is thinking over the experience intensely, to see how he can put together the pieces of his own and the [Russian] military's shattered images, both nationally and internationally."

The commentary continues: "And we can reckon with the fact that [Putin] will be thinking over even more intensely how he can prevent a repetition of the media whipping which has swept over himself and the entire Russian leadership in the past 10 days." Schwarz writes that "it's well-known how ruthlessly Putin acts to secure his power -- [that's shown by] Chechnya and his strengthening of central authority over the regions."


Turning to the on-going presidential election campaign in the United States, Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post about how the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are competing for the high moral ground. Noting the Democrats' references to religious experiences, and the Republicans' references to social justice, Milbank asks, have the parties switched places?

"Not at all," he says. "They're just playing on each other's turf -- for the first time since the 1960s. [Presidential candidate Al] Gore's Democrats are no longer allowing Republicans to monopolize faith and family values. [Republican presidential candidate George W.] Bush's Republicans will no longer grant Democrats the mantle of social justice. They are stealing shamelessly from each other -- and this," Milbank argues, "is a good thing."

The commentator writes that the two parties have, in essence, agreed on a new morality: "Left and right are approaching a truce in the search for a moral authority that transcends party lines. Even the [arch-conservative] Pat Buchanan, who named a black woman as his running mate on the [small] Reform Party's ticket, knows something has changed. "

"If you doubt Americans' receptiveness to this new morality-based politics, consider the politicians who have best captured the public imagination this year: not Gore and Bush, whom many find satisfactory if uninspiring, but Senators John McCain and [Democratic vice-presidential candidate] Joseph Lieberman. Lieberman is, to a surprising extent, the Democrats' version of McCain, [a Republican]."

Milbank continues: "This new moral politics, as practiced by McCain and Lieberman, rejects both the harsh, absolute judgments of the right and the value-neutral, cultural relativism schemes of the left."


In another commentary on the elections, Helen Thomas -- writing for the Hearst newspapers -- wonders where the feminists are hiding. "Where," she asks, "are the prominent women activists in this election? Their silence is deafening. They are not high-voltage players this time around. They are invisible except for the ever-loving wives and daughters of [Gore] and [Bush], whom they tout as perfect husbands and fathers."

But Thomas says she wonders where are the others are -- those she calls the "successors to the feminist leaders -- the Bella Abzugs, Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems -- who helped break through the gender barriers in the 1970s and then hit a plateau in the Ronald Reagan '80s.

Thomas continues: "We're talking about those women who insisted on being heard politically and who took up the cause of the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment that would have put women on a par with men." She quotes feminist Midge Costanza, who headed the women's liaison office in the Jimmy Carter White House in the 1970s, as saying that while many women now have good jobs, many others still face tough challenges: "For instance. women at work earn about a quarter less per dollar than men do in comparable jobs."

And while women have made some progress in gaining state and national offices, "Costanza also cited the sorry statistics showing that there are only 58 women in the 435-member House [of Representatives] and only nine women in the 100-member Senate." Thomas says Costanza contends that what she calls a "backlash" against feminists is keeping would-be activists in the background in the election campaigning. Thomas also quotes another prominent woman, who remains unnamed, as saying that activists in the feminist cause "scare people" -- especially, presumably, voters.