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Western Press Review: Bush-Putin Summit, Bulgarian Elections

Prague, 19 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's commentary and analysis from the Western press continues to examine the significance of Saturday's (16 June) meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some commentators warn against complacency over Russia-U.S. relations in the wake of the two leaders' unexpectedly amicable first encounter. Others criticize the lack of reproach in President Bush's dialogue with the Russian president, and suggest that Bush should have used the opportunity to censure Russian policy on Chechnya and the press. Other commentary looks at the return to power of Bulgaria's former King Simeon II, following the resounding victory of his National Movement Simeon II party in the 17 June election.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says, "[U.S.] President Bush detracted from a generally successful and important trip to Europe with his excessive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, [which] undercut his professed commitment to democracy in Russia." The paper writes that while President Bush rightly emphasized that differences between the U.S. and Russia on issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion did not preclude a constructive Russian relationship with the West, he neglected to communicate that successful relations are contingent upon Russia's conduct. The paper writes, "an important part of [President Bush's] message is -- or should have been -- that fulfillment of [Russia's aspiration to become a part of Europe] depends on Russia as well as on the West."

Russian domestic policies will affect its reception by Western nations, the paper continues. It writes: "Crushing the civilian population of Chechnya is not the route to acceptance. Neither is blocking European human rights monitors or waging vendettas against the free press." The paper concludes that "to endorse [Putin] so wholeheartedly is to suggest that those issues don't, after all, matter all that much -- [and] that maybe Mr. Bush just wants his deal on missile defense after all."


An editorial in "The New York Times" says the quick rapport that developed between the Russian and U.S. presidents "exceeded even optimistic expectations," even if "[President Bush's] comment that he had looked Mr. Putin in the eye and found him an 'honest, straightforward man,' whom Americans can trust, stuck some observers as naive."

The editorial goes on to say, "There should be no underestimating of the difficulty of the problems that could potentially divide America and Russia over the next four years [of Bush's first term in office]." It concludes: "The closer engagement signaled by Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin is a healthy development. [If] the two leaders stay committed to their vision of Washington and Moscow as potential partners, even the hardest problems can be constructively resolved."


In a commentary in the French daily "Le Monde," correspondent Natalie Nougayrede says that behind the images of amity and mutual respect that came out of the Bush-Putin meeting, significant discord and disagreements remain between the two presidents. She writes that while the U.S. president spoke of "trust" and getting "a sense of [Putin's] soul," the Russian president was more sober, using terms such as "extremely open dialogue" and saying that the summit "exceeded expectations." But beyond these niceties, she says, "no considerable progress was seen on the issues [other than] the commitment to hold 'consultations' with experts at the ministerial level, to try 'to find a common platform.'"

Putin reiterated Russian resistance to the development of an anti-missile shield, "although in eased terms," Nougayrede says. The Russian president also maintained his opposition to the Baltic states joining NATO, she continues, adding, "As for Mr. Bush, he did not specify which countries exactly he has in mind for the next [round of] expansion."

Nougayrede notes that while U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice emphasized "the Europeanness of Russia," Secretary of State Colin Powell "warned against the use of the term 'allies' by Mr. Putin to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia: 'Allied, but with a small "a".'"


In "The New York Times," columnist William Safire suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is forming an alliance with China in order to increase Russia's international influence and standing. Safire writes:

"Well aware of the weakness of his hand, Mr. Putin [is] playing the China card. Pointedly, just before meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Putin traveled to Shanghai to set up a regional cooperation pact with President Jiang Zemin of China and some of his Asian fellow travelers, [the 'Shanghai Six' regional alliance]."

Safire calls this affiliation a "deft maneuver," which should indicate to the West that "despite all the talk of becoming a 'partner' in Europe, [Russia] knows that the center of America's strategic concern in the coming generation will be Asia." A firm future alliance between China and Russia, Safire continues, "would challenge America's status as the world's sole superpower [and] undermine [U.S.] hegemony with a Beijing-Moscow axis." Safire asks whether the U.S. president and his advisers have yet realized the potential for such an alliance to challenge U.S. interests. "If so," he writes, "they don't seem to have let Mr. Putin's China card affect U.S. policy."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" reflects on what it terms "the long-awaited political comeback" of Bulgaria's dethroned and exiled king, Simeon II, who won a resounding victory in elections Sunday (17 June). The editorial says:

"For now, the task facing the former king is to make good on the promises of his campaign. [He has] pledged to raise wages and eliminate the taint of corruption."

It adds that the former monarch -- who spent his exile living as a businessman in Spain -- has recruited Bulgarians trained in the financial sector abroad to sort out the country's economic problems. "It's an encouraging sign that Simeon intends to answer populist calls with free-market solutions," the paper writes. "[But Simeon's] new team will have to show a political maturity beyond its years if it hopes to match expectations."


In "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Berthold Kohler writes that Simeon was able to win his impressive victory Sunday because, "after a decade of impoverishment, Bulgarians no longer want to pay the price for macroeconomic stabilization in the form of austerity."

Kohler adds that in the past 10 years, Bulgarians have "tried all the options," while the political elites never delivered what they promised. According to Kohler, they failed to provide even what he calls a "moderate degree of prosperity after the unrelenting period of painful economic reform." As a result, Kohler writes, "the disappointed voters have fled into the apolitical, into an unproclaimed czarist rule with a fixed term. Now, [Simeon], unsullied and selfless, is supposed to provide the sorely missed order and the foregone prosperity."

Kohler adds that Simeon "now has to prove that Bulgaria will complete the reforms that had been started [and] will hold its foreign policy course." In addition, Kohler says, he must convince the EU, NATO, and international financial institutions and foreign investors that he is the best choice for Bulgaria.