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Western Press Review: Superpower Wreckage; French 'Strikeocracy'

Prague, 5 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several U.S. newspapers carry commentaries today that see the recent sinking of a Russian nuclear submarine and the destruction by fire of Moscow's prestigious Ostankino television tower as symbols of how present-day Russia is still held in thrall by its Soviet past. Other analysts examine how France still clings on to a negotiating instrument that most other Western countries have largely abandoned -- the strike.


The Chicago Tribune says that the nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank with 118 aboard last month, and the television tower which -- when it was built in 1967 -- was the world's tallest freestanding building, "were big, bold, muscle-flexing symbols of the power of the Soviet Union." But despite the Soviet Union's collapse, the editorial says, attitudes that were prevalent among Soviet-era leaderships persist today.

The editorial says that the two disasters "must be viewed as symbols of a national infrastructure that has been starved so long it is extraordinarily vulnerable to disaster." And it adds that "the insidious and cynical internal corruption that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union extends today throughout Russia's entire infrastructure."

The Chicago Tribune goes on to say that the first step to repairing the damage caused by communism "is to recognize how deeply this rot goes and to signal from the top that it will no longer be tolerated." But it argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin's reaction to the disasters demonstrated that he is seeped in the Soviet-era traditions of trying to manipulate information and attempting to shift blame for things that go wrong.


Commentator Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times, also believes that Putin's reaction during the unfolding Kursk tragedy showed that he has failed to detect the changes in the attitudes of ordinary Russians. He says that, while Putin was parroting the sort of phrases that could have been expected from the lips of Leonid Brezhnev about standing alongside the army, the fleet and the people, he missed the vital point that the relatives of the submariners were not interested in some illusory Russian military honor but in the lives of their loved ones.

The commentator says that globalization of media means that Russians are no longer ignorant of what happens outside their own country and they know how everyone else in the world is living. He writes: "The Kursk incident showed just how much the Russian people are starting to get this, and how little Mr. Putin does. Why did Mr. Putin and his generals resist asking for foreign help until it was too late? Because they feared it would sully the honor of Mother Russia's army and puncture Russia's pretense to still being a superpower. But the families of the Russian sailors, who knew foreign help was available, told them: 'I don't want to hear about Mother Russia, or Father Russia. I want Yuri, Boris and Oleg off the ocean floor.'"

Friedman concludes that Putin can still send soldiers to die in Chechnya because Russians perceive that as an internal threat, but he can no longer rely on Soviet-era bogeymen like the threat from the West to demand endless sacrifices of Russians. He writes: "With the collapse of the cold-war system, [Russians] do not perceive an external threat. Indeed, most Russians would like to emulate America today, not bury it. And vice versa. Americans also prayed for the Kursk to be saved. Because without the cold-war psychological framework, the Kursk disaster was not seen as an enemy loss. It was seen as a human loss."


The Los Angeles Times in an editorial entitled "The Legacies of Hubris" says that the initial secrecy and official lies that surrounded the sinking of the Kursk, and Putin's reticence to interrupt his vacation, are redolent of the Soviet instinct where symbols were more important than humans. It writes: "The handling of the tragedy by Moscow officials bears all the hallmarks and hubris of 'the Soviet man,' the Communist hero worker whose exploits were glorified in posters hailing his achievements in agriculture and engineering marvels. It didn't matter what the actual grain harvest shortfall or construction defects were. The Russians were rightfully boastful of raising their empire into a 20th century powerhouse, but the deep faults of its foundation now lie exposed."

The paper also says that, although some of Russia's leaders continue to proudly point to Soviet-era "achievements," these have been exposed as hollow. "These are the legacies of the Soviet man: An economy in shambles, widespread corruption, a devastated environment, a decrepit health system and human misery across 11 time zones. The August disasters do not even begin to describe the extent of Russia's problems, but they are significant because they toppled some of the most powerful symbols of Russian pride."

In France yesterday, truckers angry at fuel price rises began blockades of oil refineries and gasoline depots to back their demands that the government lower fuel taxes they are obliged to pay. The protests threaten fuel shortages for the entire country and are the latest in a regular procession of mass strikes and demonstrations used by French labor unions and professional associations to give bite to their demands -- a device used much more sparingly by their counterparts in other Western countries.


The Wall Street Journal Europe says that, because successive French governments have given in to strikes, they have ensured that others will use the mass protest and strike weapon. It writes in an editorial: "France slowly has developed into what for lack of a better word might be called a 'strikeocracy.' The French political class has decided to order society according to the messages it gets from organized action."

The paper says that French politicians give in to strikes not only out of fear but because they see the scale of strikes and protests as a way of gauging the acceptability of their policies. The editorial says that by doing so they have legitimized the politics of protest, comparing this to events following the French revolution, when policies were forged -- and thousands were guillotined -- at the behest of well-organized mobs.

But the editorial says "strikeocracy" is a poor way of running a country, causing economic harm and forcing France to breach obligations to its European Union partners. It is also undemocratic, says the paper, because it "ensures that only the voices of the well-organized are heard, essentially disenfranchising the average Pierre or Marie. They are twice wronged, having been first inconvenienced by the strikes and then handed the bill for whatever concession the government chooses to make."


In a signed editorial in a French newspaper, Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, Jean-Claude Kiefer does exactly what the Wall Street Journal Europe identifies as the problem with "strikeocracy," that is, treating it as a legitimate measure of political expression. Kiefer writes: "The anger of the truckers [is] worrying because the transportation system is the barometer of [economic] activity. When to already high [fuel] prices are added some ideological considerations from the Green party, the entire economy suffers."

The ever-sensitive subject of the European Union's projected eastward expansion evokes comments in several west European newspapers. They were triggered by weekend remarks by the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, which some interpreted as a warning against rapid enlargement to the east. Verheugen had called for a referendum on the issue in Germany, where public opinion is cool toward the idea of expansion.


The Financial Times' Brussels correspondent, Michael Smith, writes in a news analysis: "[Verheugen's] remarks, though qualified on Monday by his spokesman, caused concern among EU and candidate country politicians. Louis Michel, Belgian foreign minister, was [as] saying referendums could be used by far-right parties to 'incite people against immigration.'" Other analysts suggest that EU political leaders are out of step with views on the Union's planned expansion held by the majority of their citizens, who are believed to be worried about the influx of large numbers of people from new east European members. One of them, Alberto Sotillo, predicts in the Spanish daily ABC, what would be the result if EU countries did dare to hold referenda on enlargement. He writes: "If the [EU] elites consulted their populations, the answer would be strongly negative for the applicant countries."