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Western Press Review: Putin's Russia And The Yukos Affair, And Azerbaijan's Gathering Political 'Storm'

Prague, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the press today take a look at Russian politics in light of the Kremlin's ongoing crackdown on the Yukos oil giant. The affair has sparked much speculation over the internal political wrangling in Moscow and President Vladimir Putin's possible role in the prosecution of Russia's richest company. Multilateral talks beginning today in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear program are also the subject of discussion, as is the gathering political "storm" in Azerbaijan.


In a contribution to "The Moscow Times," Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the Kremlin crackdown on the Yukos oil giant and its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, proves that Russian President Vladimir Putin, "after four years in power, has failed to consolidate his power base. He proved incapable of dismantling the existing system based on incompatible principles, antagonistic elites and constant clashes."

Shevtsova says that the biggest rivalry exists between "the two most interconnected elites: the business and bureaucratic elites." But recent harassment of Yukos and its partner, Sibneft, has "demonstrated the oligarchy's inability to defend its position and form its own corporatist agenda." Russia's so-called oligarchs have been exposed "as nothing more than appointees of the apparatus who have been handed the right to control private property and are supposed to act within strict boundaries." The Yukos-Khodorkovskii affair "proves that the oligarchy is a myth. Bureaucracy continues to be the dominant force within the Russian system of governance, as it has been through the ages."

Shevtsova says Yukos was specifically targeted because it was "the first Russian company that started to look for legitimacy not through maintaining cozy relations with the apparatus but by making the switch to transparency and legality. It was a challenge to the bureaucracy, which reacted immediately."

The Yukos affair "has proven that Russia's stability is not sustainable," Shevtsova says. "The rules of the game can be reversed at any moment. Economic considerations and property rights can become hostage to the political struggle."


A piece in "The New York Times" by Steven Lee Myers, reprinted also in today's "International Herald Tribune," says the Yukos affair "has spawned endless speculation about who really wields power in Russia under President Vladimir Putin." While theories abound, he says, "no one outside the Kremlin really knows, and no one inside will say."

Myers says the Yukos affair "has been widely cast as a struggle between the two factions vying for control under Putin and, some say, for the future of Russia itself." On one side are Putin's economic advisers, who advocate a reformist agenda to boost the Russian economy. On the other are the security services, of which many, like Putin, are former KGB members and "are said to advocate strong state control over business and politics."

As for the Russian president, his public statements "are carefully scripted for consumption on state television," Myers says. Putin's "few public remarks on the Yukos affair have been oblique to the point of obfuscation. [The] fact is that nearly two months after it began, no more is known about the motives of the investigation and Putin's role in it than when it began."

Ultimately, "Putin is, if anything, pragmatic," Myers says. "Most believe he plays one side off the other -- to what end is not clear -- while trying to remain above the fray as a sort of benevolent czar."


East Asian affairs analyst for the "Financial Times" and former U.S. official Susan Shirk says there is "good reason" for the "widespread skepticism" surrounding talks beginning today in Beijing on North Korea's alleged nuclear program. Pyongyang "seems determined to acquire a nuclear deterrent no matter what," Shirk says. As for the U.S. administration, its insistence on multilateral talks "has sounded more like an excuse not to deal directly with the North Koreans than a serious policy. And at least some in the [U.S.] administration see talks as a diplomatic box to tick before moving on to more coercive measures."

And yet the talks "may surprise everyone by succeeding," Shirk says. The presence of South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia "will push Washington as well as Pyongyang to compromise." She says, "As long as North Korea feels threatened by the U.S., it will cling to its nuclear security blanket." Washington "will have to reassure North Korea about its intentions in a manner that Pyongyang finds credible. [A] non-aggression agreement, like the one the U.S. gave Ukraine in return for giving up the nuclear weapons the Soviet Union had based there, might be required."

The promise of diplomatic recognition "if North Korea dismantles its nuclear program could be the most tangible and thus the most convincing expression of goodwill Washington can offer." But the U.S. may also have "to allow a North Korea that drops its nuclear program to obtain technical assistance and loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which will be essential if North Korea's nascent market reforms are to succeed."


Writing in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Markus Wehner, looking at Russia's fast-growing economy, says, "Not since the beginning of the nineties has Russia had it so good." Industrial production and investment are on the increase, and not only because of the rise in world prices for oil and gas.

On the political front, too, the country is stable, Wehner remarks. "Not even the upcoming elections are bringing with them any political tremors," he says. President Vladimir Putin has successfully consolidated his position over his past three years in office and recently "stole the independence" of the All-Russian Institute of Public Opinion Studies. And in spite of the mounting death toll in Chechnya, "the Kremlin intends to continue its policy of 'normalization'" -- and is not meeting with much opposition.

But if Putin is determined to realize his aim of doubling the GNP (gross national product) within the next 10 years, Wehner says he must launch a more intense drive for reforms, which have long been impeded by bureaucracy. Putin "needs the Duma to implement reforms." But in parliamentary elections later this year, Wehner says there is no doubt the Kremlin will succeed in getting enough representation to carry its agenda.

Wehner says the Russian president is firmly established enough to also win re-election next spring. But the liberals in Russia anxiously wonder what is to come after Putin, given the rising influence of the Kremlin's new elite recruited from the military and secret services.


A commentary in "Die Welt" by Hans-Joerg Schmidt looks at some of the issues at stake for countries due to join the EU next year. The topic was raised in discussions yesterday between Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer during a working visit to Prague.

Schmidt criticizes Fischer for failing to consider the persistent objections raised by EU aspirant countries, who feel they are being treated as second-class members of the union. Schmidt says one cannot blame the Central and Eastern European countries for defending their interests -- Fischer himself spoke in Prague about the repression these countries suffered at the hands of communist Russia for 50 years. These countries "now have a right to be taken seriously," says Schmidt.


A contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe" by Thomas de Waal of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting says, "it is time for the outside world to pay more attention to the storm that may be gathering in [the] oil-rich corner of the south Caucasus" known as Azerbaijan. As President Heidar Aliyev looks set to install his son Ilham as his successor, de Waal says, "No one knows what the next few months will bring." Aliyev has a micromanaging style of leadership, and de Waal says should Aliyev step down or die, it could unleash "a tide of pent-up problems" in this poor and "largely undemocratic" nation.

But "the gravest danger of all," de Waal says, is "a resumption of fighting with the Armenians over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh," an Armenian-dominated enclave of Azerbaijan. "The danger is growing that, as Azerbaijan's would-be presidents jockey for position, one of them will be tempted to play the patriotic card and launch a military strike against the Armenians. Before we know it, there might be a new war in the Caucasus," de Waal says. With the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline only 20 miles to the north of the cease-fire line established in 1994, de Waal says "the potential for global havoc is huge."

De Waal suggests the international community must engage in "robust" diplomacy "to remind the Azerbaijani political elite of their responsibilities to the region and their own public." He says the Azerbaijani people "deserve a fair deal from their rulers if stability is to be maintained."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)