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Western Press Review: Democracy's Dilemmas, Serbian Reform, And The New U.S. Fingerprinting Policy

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 7 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics up for debate in the press today are the intricacies and contradictions of fostering democracy around the world, encouraging reform in Serbia, Georgia's presidential elections, and the controversial new U.S. policy on fingerprinting and photographing visiting foreigners.


Writing in "The Christian Science Monitor," David Newsom says the debate over bringing democracy to the Middle East often focuses on the question of whether the region is "ready for democracy." But Newsom, a former U.S. ambassador to Libya, Indonesia, and the Philippines, says another pressing question is whether the United States itself is ready to "tolerate" the forms of democracy that might arise in other lands. He asks, if democratically elected regimes around the world are not accommodating to U.S. interests, what would Washington do?

Democratic regimes in some areas of the Middle East would encounter populations that feel "humiliated by the West and vulnerable to politicians who would seek to exploit the deep-seated resentments relating to Israel; ethnic and religious divisions; and the intrusion of foreign, particularly Western[,] influence." The policies of these elected governments could directly challenge U.S. efforts around the world. And Newsom says past experience suggests that within the United States, "Congress, American political circles and much of the public will not tolerate policies in others that appear to threaten basic U.S. interests."

If the policies of future elected governments in Iraq or Afghanistan are unacceptable to Washington, Newsom predicts demands will be made "for a forceful removal of the offending government or for sanctions." And yet the U.S. commitment to Mideast democracy "would quickly lose credibility if transition efforts are accompanied by conspicuous machinations to produce friendly regimes." Newsom says the "ultimate credibility" of the U.S. administration's democratic initiatives in the Middle East "will depend on the degree to which U.S. administrations, Congress, and the [U.S.] public can tolerate or peacefully change policy directions that appear to challenge key U.S. interests."


Syndicated columnist Paul Greenberg says the "slow, agonizing postwar war" in Iraq should be raising some key questions. Writing in "The Washington Times," he says: "For example: Have we confused the means with the ends in Iraq? When did it become a war for democracy instead of one designed to assure [U.S.] national security? And just where does one end and the other begin?"

Actively fostering democracy in Iraq and around the world can be one weapon in the war on terrorism, "but only one of many" aimed at achieving "the overriding goal: the security of [the United States] and its allies and a stable, peaceful world." Greenberg says when the pursuit of democracy "becomes destructive of those ends, when it prolongs a war instead of shortening it, when we insist on imposing a Western system of government in [the] East, no matter how much disruption it may cause, it is time to step back and think again about just what our goal is in Iraq."

He asks, is the long-term aim "to impose an American-style democracy on a society without an American-style history of civil institutions? Or is it to assure Iraq will not threaten us, or its neighbors, in the future? Those goals can be complementary -- or they can conflict. When they do, it's time to ask which is more important."

Greenberg says the United States should not insist on remaking Iraq in its own image. "A modicum of respect for other cultures now might save us much pain and disappointment later," he writes. Instead of repeating the same "old rhetoric about democracy," he calls for the adoption of "a new realism in foreign affairs."


An editorial today discusses controversial new measures to fingerprint and photograph visitors to the United States. Beginning this week, citizens of other countries seeking entry through a U.S. border by air or sea will have a digital photograph taken and their fingerprint scanned electronically. The information gathered from these individuals will then be checked against lists of wanted criminals and terrorists, and compared to the information collected in their home countries when they applied for a U.S. visa. The aim is to ensure that the person actually entering the country is the one who was granted a visa.

Only tourists from the 28 nations with which the United States has no visa requirement will be exempt from the new measures. And they, too, will need to be electronically identified if staying for more than 90 days.

"The New York Times" says it had "many reservations" about the new security procedures, but that the Homeland Security Department "has gone a long way toward assuaging widespread concerns that the United States would excessively humiliate certain travelers, or treat them in an undignified manner. Despite earlier worries that visitors from the Middle East might be singled out for special scrutiny, the program applies to visitors from all over the world."

The paper says the concern that checking visitors' fingerprints is a violation of privacy is "misplaced." Traveling aboard a commercial airliner to visit another country "always entails a surrender of some measure of privacy," it says. Moreover, these new biometric, "tamperproof" identity checks could replace the "cruder forms of profiling that have been used to screen for potential terrorists," such as profiling based on race or ethnicity.


Mikheil Saakashvili will officially be declared president of Georgia today following his 4 January election victory. An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" says the new president's "most urgent task" will be "to persuade Moscow to abandon its attempts to divide and rule his country." Although Georgia declared its independence in 1991 following the Soviet collapse, "escaping from the Russian sphere of influence has proved more difficult."

But Saakashvili is "under no illusions about Russian intentions," says the paper. The Kremlin has covertly supported separatist elements in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia, Adjaria, and South Ossetia, and the semi-autonomous leaders of the three regions recently met in Moscow for talks. Russia is concerned that Georgia's Pankisi Gorge has become a haven for Chechen separatist rebels. Nevertheless, says the paper, "[Russian] meddling has the potential to destabilize the Saakashvili government."

The daily says, "Regime change in Iraq has increased the strategic importance of the Caucasus, and Georgia is second only to Israel in American aid per capita." Both the United States and Britain "have a vital interest in persuading Russia to withdraw its troops [from Georgian territory] and cease exploiting Georgia's fissiparous elements." Russian President Vladimir Putin also "stands to gain from letting the young democracy mature" in Tbilisi. It is now "time for Georgia to step out of the shadow of its most notorious son, Josef Djugashvili, better known by his adopted Russian name: Stalin."


In a contribution to "The Washington Post," the Century Foundation's Morton Abramowitz says the emergence of what he calls a "rabid nationalist party" as Serbia's leading political force "is just the latest manifestation of how badly things are deteriorating in the Balkans." Unless the European-American collaboration in the region "stops putting off difficult political decisions or making bad ones, prospects for reversing the downward trend will remain dismal." Western policy blunders in the region are now "running the risk of creating mini-'black holes' in Europe where violent nationalism, crime and terrorism are rampant."

Serbia today is "a nationalist and quasi-mafia state," due to the reformists' failure to root out corruption and the West's failure "to face facts." Western nations consistently turned "a blind eye" to the corruption of democratic forces in the region.

Another "big mistake" was the decision to artificially unify Serbia and Montenegro. Abramowitz says that "two real states" were hammered into "a bizarre confederation that does not work." Their union has reduced both countries' focus on internal reform and kept Serbia "absorbed in the past," rather than facing the "critical need to democratize" and tackling its criminal elements.

Abramowitz says the West has also erred by putting off a decision on Kosovo's final status. He writes, "It is time to get a concerted Western policy that truly helps reform Serbia, frees Serbia and Montenegro from their pseudo-union, allows the people of Kosovo to have a real government, and begins the painful process of resolving the Kosovo question."


In France's "Le Figaro," Admiral Pierre Lacoste, formerly of the advanced school of naval war (l'Ecole Superieure de Guerre Naval), asks whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will follow the tyrannical model of Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin or pursue a path more like Peter the Great and former President Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to Westernize their immense empires. Regarding a review of Vladimir Fedorovski's "Romance of the Kremlin," Lacoste questions whether Putin "will succumb to the attractions of absolute power [or] to the temptation of imperialist tendencies." We cannot be certain that the Kremlin will not return to running a dictatorship, he says. But one thing is already evident -- with a former KGB officer leading the country, there is now a new alliance between the secret services and the corridors of power.

Putin is a man of many faces, Lacoste says. He is capable of reacting quickly to exploit any opportunity or any weakness in his opponent. His nimble reaction to the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States -- Putin was the first head of state to call the U.S. president with expressions of condolence -- perfectly illustrates this remarkable ability. He is also capable of exerting a Machiavellian mastery of complex situations. Lacoste says that, as an advocate of the use of force, Putin has handled the Chechen rebellion with the utmost brutality and keeps a tight grip on the levers of power by strategically positioning his former KGB colleagues, the so-called siloviki.