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Western Press Review: Belarusian Elections, Russia's Oligarchs, Reform In Eastern Europe

Prague, 11 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's Western press carries several commentaries on Sunday's (9 September) presidential election in Belarus. Amid allegations of election fraud, some analysts say it is Russia that holds the key to political change in Belarus. Other topics addressed include NATO's continuing mission in Macedonia, Russia's oligarchs, reform in Eastern Europe, and Sunday's suicide bomb attack at the northern base of Afghan opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood. There are conflicting reports about whether Masood died in the attack.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" carries an editorial on Sunday's presidential election in Belarus. Amid allegations of election fraud leveled by international observers, as well as by the leading opposition candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Minsk's October Square yesterday (10 September). The paper writes: "[As] we go to press, students and workers from across Belarus are still flooding toward October Square. [They] believe that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stole this past Sunday's national election. And they might be right."

The paper goes on to say that it has received "dozens of specific reports of voting irregularities and harassment of international observers." But it says that if any nation can influence events in Belarus, it is Russia: "There is very little the West can do -- besides point out electoral irregularities and support the democratic elements within Belarus.... [But] Russian President Vladimir Putin has an historic opportunity. The Russian press has done a good job in documenting the failings of the Lukashenka government. There are many cultural and political ties between Russia and Belarus. [Putin] could call upon Mr. Lukashenka to hold a run-off election, with international observers and fair-campaign rules," the paper suggests.

The editorial concludes that as the crowds continue to gather on October Square, "the future of Europe's last dictatorship now lies with the people of Belarus and, perhaps, the leaders of Russia."


Thomas Roser, in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," focuses on the economic consequences of the Belarusian elections. He suggests that, despite its own immense economic problems, Russia will bail Belarus out financially. Neither international isolation nor the threat of a Western economic boycott has deterred the authoritarian Lukashenka from asserting himself, says Roser, for he knows "he has the support of a large section of the population, as well as Russia."

On the other hand, the timid opposition is helpless, for "Lukashenka's irrational actions are impossible to deal with on a diplomatic level. Hopes of a 'Yugoslavian situation,' considering the weak opposition, cannot be fulfilled. Likewise, in the face of this, both the U.S. and the Western Europeans are unable to promote steps toward democratic change."

It is questionable whether Western boycotts can achieve anything since Moscow is willing to prop up the regime. Roser concludes, "Moscow holds the key to changes in Minsk."


Belarus's presidential election is also the subject of an editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor." The paper calls Belarus a "negative model for freedom" and says that Sunday's "largely discredited vote was the latest in a string of actions in the former Soviet state that serves to help European nations, from Serbia to Poland, see just how advanced their democracies are." The editorial concurs with other commentaries that have said Russia is in the best position to influence the circumstances in Belarus.

As the paper puts it, "It is Russia that holds the key to whether its tiny neighbor will join the rest of Europe. So far, however, the Kremlin seems to prefer having a loyal ally that is also economically dependent on Russia. And Belarus serves as a front blocker for the expansion of NATO and the European Union to Russia's border."

The editorial concludes by saying, "Belarus remains Europe's weak link as it tries to build a community of market democracies. It needs help in rising above its past."


In an editorial, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" gives its evaluation of the situation in Belarus following Lukashenka's victory. It says, "All hopes for a change in this poverty-stricken country in the heart of Europe have been dashed since Lukashenka has shown, by brazenly falsifying the election results, that he does what he pleases without heeding the will of the people nor opinions abroad."

The commentator suggests that part of the problem lies in the passive nature of the society. Only young people display resistance. "The Belarusians are a law-abiding nation, a kind people, clamped between Poland and Russia. And thanks to terrible experiences with dictators Hitler and Stalin, they have learned to survive by accommodating."

It required some courage to vote against Lukashenka, but now they realize the dictator has stolen their votes, for which "they will never forgive him," the paper says. Nevertheless, the people will not revolt, and the editorial concludes that it will be at least as hard to unseat him as it was former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"Lukashenka is here to stay until he is driven out. Belarus is not the Balkans," it says.


In "The Washington Post," Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution joins several other commentators in saying that NATO must be prepared to remain in Macedonia "to get the job done." As Daalder puts it, "Rather than continuing the effort to stabilize the security situation in Macedonia, NATO plans to withdraw its forces by the end of the month. That would be a fatal error, risking not only the minor progress that has been achieved to date but also a likely intensification of the conflict if not an actual civil war. Six months of bitter conflict cannot be erased by a paper agreement and the 30-day presence of foreign soldiers."

He suggests that NATO countries must "bite the bullet and agree to deploy a larger force for a more extended period in order to get the job done right."

Addressing concerns voiced by many who fear another never-ending Balkan deployment for the alliance, Daalder writes: "Contrary to fears of many, this is not likely to be an open-ended mission on a par with NATO's other Balkan operations. In contrast to Bosnia and Kosovo, there is in Macedonia a viable governing infrastructure and civil society, which must now be given the confidence to initiate needed reforms."

"[In] the end," Daalder says, "NATO will have no choice but to stay and get the job done."


The French daily "Le Monde" carries an editorial on Europe's increasing role in international affairs. The paper says that, despite a past characterized by inaction and a poor excuse for a viable common policy, Europe is now coming into its own. "Le Monde" says that, "Usually, CFSP -- Common Foreign and Security Policy -- [indicates] a European ambition devoid of content." But this is changing.

"While it is doubtless too early to proclaim victory, it is at least necessary to take note of current progress," writes the paper. "Because from Durban to Skopje by way of Jerusalem and Gaza, the diplomatic initiative has returned to Europe -- where one was used to seeing the United States as the only cavalier or, before the collapse of the USSR, co-directing the world with Moscow."

"Le Monde" says that "The New York Times" discovered as much this weekend, when it noted that on the three fronts that are the trouble spots of the moment, one does not find U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, but the envoys of Europe. "Le Monde" remarks that under U.S. President George W. Bush -- whose "unique ambition on the planet," the paper says, is setting up an anti-missile shield -- once-prevalent American diplomacy is absent in the Balkans, as well as in the near East.


In the "Financial Times," Robert Cottrell takes a look at Russia's new "oligarchs" -- roughly two dozen Russian businessmen who have taken over the national employers' federation, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or RUIE. With this move, he says, these tycoons have "gained a lobbying group respectable enough to guarantee them audiences with President Vladimir Putin. Already this year they have helped persuade Mr. Putin to push through a partial liberalization of Russia's oppressive exchange controls."

Cottrell continues: "That Russia's tycoons now want to be seen working together on policy issues marks a big change in business behavior. Under Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin's predecessor, the oligarchs fought like cats over the spoils they grabbed from the state."

Cottrell cites two major factors that have caused this change in attitude: "The first is that Mr. Putin, since taking office last year, has proved ready and able to reassert the power of the state over even the most headstrong of tycoons -- using his police, taxmen and security services to harass them into submission. Second, the tycoons had already grabbed or cornered most of the country's best assets by the time Mr. Yeltsin stepped down. Now they want respectability -- and a more stable environment in which to do business."


Also in the "Financial Times," Anders Aslund looks at the economic reforms of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan and says that while much of the world is approaching recession, "one unlikely region is booming: the former Soviet Union." Market reforms have driven this progress, Aslund says. He writes: "The reforms started with cleaning up government budgets, which have turned to surpluses. Oil revenues helped but, crucially, governments slashed corporate subsidies and stopped promising more than they paid." In addition, personal finances have improved as a result of tax cuts.

But there are still reforms that need to be introduced, says Aslund. "An important challenge now is to discipline the lawless law enforcement," he writes. "[And] to date, the social sector has received little attention. Kazakhstan has undertaken radical pension reform [and] Russia is now attempting a more cautious variant, but little has been done to reform the large, malfunctioning public administrations of education and health care. In both spheres, it is reported, public services are still secured with bribes. They need to be regularized and made transparent," says Aslund.

As he suggests, "More reforms should breed more growth, even if the rest of the world goes into recession."


In "The Times" of Britain, an editorial says that Sunday's suicide-bomb attack on Ahmad Shah Masood, leader of the Afghan opposition to the Taliban, has dealt "a deadly blow to the world's attempts to hold the Taliban in check." As the last commander still holding out against the Islamic Taliban extremists, he has kept alive resistance to the regime.

Now, with Masood severely wounded or perhaps dead, "The Times" says that the West must consider changing their policy in Afghanistan. It writes: "The West has long abandoned any attempt at negotiation with a regime whose hard-liners adopt ever more extreme positions to maintain their rule as conditions in the country worsen. Containment is the main policy -- the diplomatic and physical isolation of [the] regime."

"The Times" continues: "The other means of enforcing pariah status was the withholding of diplomatic recognition. As long as Masood held on to a sliver of territory, that policy was credible at the United Nations and in most capitals. But if all Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, it will be hard for countries such as Britain, where recognition depends not on ideology but on a government's degree of control, to ignore the Taliban victory or to oppose the removal of the opposition from the overseas embassies and the UN."

Without Masood, the paper says, "the opposition could swiftly collapse. All the more reason, therefore, for Pakistan, one of three countries recognizing the Taliban, to demand of the monster it has bred a minimum of human rights."