International Papers

Putin the Terrible?

Russian voters stuck with the script Sunday and gave acting President Vladimir Putin the job. Papers around the world evinced nostalgia for the hard-fought presidential election of 1996; “this time the three-month run-up to the election has been dominated by a sense of inevitability,” sighed the Moscow Times. The lack of enthusiasm was shared at the St. Petersburg Times, where an op-ed concluded: “Kremlin political technologists … arrang[ed] the pre-election plate in such a way that the most attractive dish is the oatmeal named Putin. They suppose—and not without reason—that, finding neither steak nor sturgeon on the menu, the majority of Russians will pick the oatmeal.” A leader in Britain’s Guardian Saturday claimed, “The problem with this election is that it has hardly been an election at all—more a referendum on one man’s popularity. … Putin has achieved the American politician’s trick of running as an anti-establishment candidate while enjoying the backing of the establishment.” The Financial Times declared that “every effort has been made to avoid alienating voters by setting out an electoral programme, let alone entering into debate with rivals. Apart from a vague statement diffused on the Internet at the end of last year, the only significant insight into Mr Putin’s thinking came in a rambling letter to voters full of generalities, published late last month.”

Despite the scarcity of on-the-record pronouncements, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post expressed concern about Putin’s rhetoric: “When he talks of ‘a dictatorship of the law,’ or says ‘the stronger the state, the freer the individual,’ some Russians (and others) think more of Joseph Stalin than Thomas Jefferson.” Writing in Britain’s Observer, veteran foreign correspondent Neal Ascherson compared Putin to an earlier Russian leader: “Like Putin, he had pure moral ideals, but a state too weak to carry them out without using tyrannical violence. His name was Ivan IV, remembered as Ivan the Terrible.” Monday’s Guardian found one positive aspect of the new president: “At least, unlike his predecessor, Mr Putin is someone whom western leaders can talk to, in person or by telephone. He offers predictability.”

Although Putin may have been spared a real race, it’s widely agreed that there will be no avoiding tough issues after the election. The Guardian named the “far from over” war in Chechnya, additional separatist struggles, and the need to revive the moribund economy, “particularly its rusting industrial base and primitive agriculture,” as Russia’s most pressing problems. ABC of Spain, which changed candidate Ella Pamfilova’s gender when it erroneously referred to the “12 men who are contesting the presidency” in an editorial Saturday (plus, there were 11 candidates in the race), added the enormous debt, the depreciation of the ruble, 40 percent unemployment, and corruption to the list.

A harrowing piece in South Africa’s Daily Mail & Guardian described the futility of the nation’s special rape courts without more resources for police investigators and prosecuting attorneys. The author, who described her own frustrating experience with the system, said, “No one installs the windows in a house before they have built the foundations and walls—and yet that is precisely what government is doing with its 20 new rape courts.” In 1998, fewer than 3,500 of South Africa’s 54,000 reported rapes went to trial. According to the story, “women withdraw charges because the police investigations are so shambolic or the prosecutor so uncaring and inept that it retraumatises the woman or child who was raped. Many who are gang-raped (and 75% of South African women who are raped are gang-raped) withdraw charges because the gang terrorizes them and their family afterwards.” The special courts, made possible by Canadian funding and with assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice, are said to be “the only government move yet to combat the world’s worst statistics of rape and violence against women.”  (Click here for more on the courts.)

A curious piece in Sunday’s Observer focused on a non-story: According to the paper, Die Tageszeitung of Berlin outed far-right Austrian leader Jörg Haider as gay, information that “has been common knowledge [in Austria] for years, but has never been publicly declared.” The Observer claimed that liberal daily Der Standard and private TV station AT are the only Austrian media to have covered the outing thus far.

Cherie Booth’s hint last week that she would like her husband, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to take a paternity leave following the birth of their fourth child in May (see this “International Papers”) sent the British newspapers into a frenzy of speculation, debate, and name-calling. A columnist in the Observer suggested, “Four children on, Cherie might feel, like an exasperated lady owner of a frisky puppy, that it’s time to rub her husband’s nose straight into the mess and stink of babyhood.” Writing in the same newspaper, veteran humorist Richard Ingram said: “Mr Blair, with his shining eyes and happy-clappy manner, has always looked pretty batty, albeit in a reasonably harmless way. The same is true of his wife, Cherie, who gives an impression, perhaps unfairly, of having only limited contact with the real world. … The only result of all this is to make both the Blairs look even sillier than they do at present.” One e-mail to the editors of the Daily Telegraph pointed out that since Blair backs paid paternity leave as government policy, not taking one himself would “undermine other fathers claiming that right.” (In the past, Blair has been criticized for promoting public education for others while sending his own children to private schools.) Most concluded that Blair can’t win—if he doesn’t take a leave he risks “big grief” at home, charges of hypocrisy, and claims that he doesn’t trust his deputy to run things; if he takes a break, people will say he’s shirking his responsibilities.