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Western Press Review: Politics And Policy In The Caucasus; Protecting Freedoms By Living With Risk

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in major dailies today are the challenges ahead for Georgia's new leadership, Russian policy in the Caucasus, the limits of military intelligence, and balancing the need for security with the obligation to protect civic freedoms -- what one columnist calls "the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies in the last 100 years."

FINANCIAL TIMES:

The Council on Foreign Relations' David Phillips says Georgia's peaceful transfer of power this week following 4 January 2003 elections is not enough to resolve the country's "serious systemic problems." Writing in the "Financial Times," Phillips says tackling these will require "the energetic participation of the international community."

Initially, funds are needed for a short-term stabilization package to "sustain government operations, pay police and army salaries and ensure that pensioners and other vulnerable groups do not go cold or hungry." But Phillips says additional aid from overseas "should be conditional on Georgia's progress in fighting corruption." President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili must "move quickly to arrest high-profile individuals linked to criminal bureaucratic networks. At the same time, he needs to launch a long-term anticorruption campaign, strengthen state institutions that guard accountability, and involve civil society and the media."

And yet, Phillips says regardless of Saakashvili's personal commitment to reform, his progress will be hindered by powerful outside influences. Georgia's strategic location in the Caspian energy corridor makes it a major battleground for vying Russian and U.S. interests. And the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia continue to challenge Tbilisi's authority.

Phillips suggests the UN should get involved in resolving the political standoff with Abkhazia. But ultimately, he says, Saakashvili would do well "to focus on political and economic reforms so that he can negotiate with restive provinces and foreign powers from a position of strength."

With the "political momentum" of his overwhelming election victory amid high voter turnout, there is now "a real chance of progress."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," analyst Vladimir Socor of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies says the Russian political system and society are once again "in thrall" to the Kremlin. Members of the former KGB and Russian nationalism "have replaced the Communist Party and its ideology as pillars of the state." As a corollary, Moscow pursues a foreign policy "of economic, political and military re-expansion, targeting post-Soviet countries across Eurasia, and major Western interests there." In the past year, the Kremlin "monopolized the national television networks, turning them into propaganda outlets. A re-militarization of public life gathered momentum; [and] career officers of the now-renamed KGB took over key political posts." And pulling former Soviet satellite countries back into Russia's sphere of influence "is now official policy."

This strategy could "turn Russia into a very serious problem for the West in terms of direct Western access to energy resources, availability of corridors and forward-deployed bases for anti-terror operations, and even military security on the new Euro-Atlantic borders." Yet Western policymakers are reluctant to acknowledge these trends, Socor says. He proposes that the Western response must be "a steady enlargement of NATO and the EU until both groups include, in one form or another, the countries in their immediate proximity: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as securing overland access to Eastern Caspian oil and gas." He warns that the Western world "cannot afford, on their immediate borders, the defeat of democracy and of pro-Western political forces, as has happened in Russia."

EURASIA VIEW:

Writing in "Eurasia View," CIS affairs analyst Igor Torbakov says policymakers in Moscow are still grappling with how to respond to the change of leadership in neighboring Georgia. Some Russian policy analysts urge greater cooperation with Tbilisi, while others question the sincerity of President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's pledges to improve ties with the Kremlin.

Russian-Georgian relations have been characterized by hostility in recent years, and the Russian leadership is now divided over how to proceed. Its initial reaction to Saakashvili's victory has been to "play for time," says Torbakov. One faction of analysts in Moscow maintains that a continuation of the Kremlin's hard-line approach cannot "[compel] Tbilisi's loyalty." Others more strongly urge Moscow to pursue a genuinely amicable policy toward its neighbor. Some even suggest that "Russia's confrontational stance towards Georgia has effectively masked the absence of a well-considered approach."

But more hawkish Russian analysts "openly say they don't trust the new Georgian leadership because of what they describe as its excessive pro-Americanism." Some suspect the new leadership wants to remove Georgia from Russian influence altogether, placing it instead on a Westward path to eventual NATO membership. Torbakov cites the Russian Army newspaper, "Krasnaya Zvezda," as openly accusing the United States of coordinating a "regime change" in Tbilisi.

Torbakov says some Russian policymakers view "Saakashvili's rise to power [as] a make-or-break moment for Moscow's ability to retain its regional sphere of influence." As political analyst Gennadii Sysoyev put it in the "Kommersant" daily, "In Georgia, Moscow seeks to put an end to the clearly visible trend of its being squeezed out of the post-Soviet space."

FINANCIAL TIMES:

Philip Stephens of the "Financial Times" discusses the limitations of military intelligence in light of a report released this week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. The Carnegie dossier alleges that the U.S. administration "systematically misrepresented" the threat posed by Iraq's unconventional weapons programs. As Stephens puts it, "For all the brutal intent of Saddam Hussein's regime -- which was a long-term threat to global security -- the danger was neither clear nor present." But he says the report's findings may create a false sense of complacency for those that opposed the war if they conclude that "[we] need not worry about a failure of intelligence, because this was a simple case of political deceit."

As Stephens points out, concerns over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction did not begin when U.S. President George W. Bush "decided to go to war." Warnings on Iraq continued throughout the 1990s following the first Gulf War (1991). The Carnegie report "concludes that the assessments of the vast U.S. intelligence establishment were simply wrong when it came to Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capabilities." British intelligence concluded long ago "that Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile programs were still active."

And yet these "misreadings" and key intelligence failures do not indicate that the British or American intelligence services misrepresented their findings on purpose. "We must recognize intelligence for what it is: fragmented and imperfect," Stephens says. It is merely "one element among the many on which politicians should draw before making vital judgments about war and peace, domestic security and civil liberties."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

A "New York Times" editorial discusses the question of Kurdish autonomy and independence, calling it one of the "central challenges" yet to be met in Iraq. Since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's Kurds have lived mainly in an autonomous zone in the north of the country. "Some had hoped that once Saddam Hussein's regime had been toppled, the Kurds would give up autonomy to ease the concerns of other Iraqi groups and of neighbors, like Turkey, with their own Kurdish populations." But the paper says the Kurds "dream of a separate state. Maintaining autonomy is their minimal demand."

And this "should be accepted, but with conditions," according to the paper. "The Kurds consider the oil fields of Kirkuk to be theirs. They are not. They are part of the national patrimony," and Iraq's new basic law, due to be passed at the end of February, must "make clear that oil will be under federal control, with Kurds getting their share of the revenue." The paper suggests the 50,000 armed Kurds "should be turned into a branch of a federally commanded national guard." But it emphasizes that the rights of the Turkoman and Chaldean minorities living among the Kurds must also be protected under the basic law "from both federal and regional governments."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Thomas Friedman of "The New York Times" says some of the societal changes in the Western world stemming from the 11 September 2001 attacks amount to "the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies in the last 100 years." He cites Middle East analyst Abdullah Schleiffer as saying the last century's first major challenge was the Nazi regime, which "[tried] to impose the reign of [the] Aryan race." During the Cold War it was the Soviet Union and its celebrated working class. And the September 2001 attacks were "about religious totalitarians" -- the radical Islamists -- who are "[trying] to impose the reign of the perfect faith, political Islam."

As deadly serious as the Cold War was, mutual deterrence was always possible because, "at the end of the day, the Soviets loved life more than they hated us (Americans). Despite our differences, we agreed on certain bedrock rules of civilization."

But with militant Islamic groups, "we face people who hate us more than they love life." And the weapons of choice -- suicide bombs -- "attack the most essential element of an open society: trust." Friedman says without trust, open societies cannot exist "because there aren't enough police officers to guard every opening in an open society."

One way to meet the threat is by "gradually taking away trust": searching airline passengers, fingerprinting visitors and ultimately undermining "cherished civil liberties."

But Friedman suggests three other methods. First, improving intelligence. Next, learning "to live with more risk, while maintaining our open society." Finally, tackling the problems within the Islamic extremists' societies of origin, and finding ways to deter them before they can act.
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