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Western Press Review: Iran's Parliamentary Standoff, Education in Iraq, the Afghan Constitution

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Discourse and debate in the media today touches on the continuing standoff between Iran's reformist legislators and its conservative clerics, re-establishing the education infrastructure for children in Iraq, and fears within the leadership in the breakaway republic of Adjaria of Tbilisi's new "democratic contagion." One analysis considers what significance the much-lauded agreement on a new constitution for Afghanistan can really have in a country where warlords rule and personal security is far from guaranteed.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

Yesterday marked the fourth day of a sit-in at parliament by Iran's reformist legislators, who are protesting the conservative Guardians Council's decision to ban many of them from running for re-election next month. The council disqualified more than 2,000 candidates, including 80 serving parliamentarians, from serving in office.

"The Wall Street Journal Europe" remarks that Iran's reformists gained control of parliament in 1999, but the liberalization they promised "never materialized" and much of the Iranian public has since become disenchanted. The paper says many of the protesting parliamentarians "would likely have lost their seats in an election anyhow."

The "Journal" says "[the] fact that there have been no street protests in support of the 'reformers' suggests much of the public has already lost faith in their ability to be agents of change. Ordinary Iranians won't risk the wrath of religious police just to ensure power for another faction." And yet, the reformists' loss of public support "didn't deter the Iranian Guardians Council [from] seeking to curtail the parliamentarians' meager influence."

Nevertheless, "the ground under the feet of Iran's ruling mullahs appears increasingly unstable," says the paper. Massive pro-reform student protests in June, new admissions about Iran's illicit nuclear programs last November and the slowness of Tehran's response to the devastating earthquake in Bam have chipped away at clerical authority. The paper says it is Iran's "under-30-year-olds -- who comprise a majority of the population -- [who] have been leading the calls for a more liberal Muslim society. These are Iran's real reformers," the "Journal" says. "But there is as yet no sign that their voices are being heard."

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Carlotta Gall of "The New York Times" questions the significance of an agreement on a new Afghan Constitution in a country that is still largely run by warlords and lacks a central rule of law.

"The adoption of a constitution was unquestionably a major step," she says. "But the West should be under no illusions about the document's value to a nation bristling with arms, [a nation] that would almost certainly backslide into chaos and factional warfare were it not for the military forces of NATO and the United States. Afghans certainly are not."

Gall says that since the Afghan Human Rights Commission opened last year, it has "recorded 1,700 complaints of violations from around the country and has investigated about half of them." These include 225 accusations of murder; 242 land seizures; 195 cases of destruction of property; 66 incidents of torture; 82 allegations of illegal detention; and 56 of looting. All of these involved "commanders or local leaders, whether self-appointed or government officials."

And Gall says these "are only the cases that the Commission knows about, and because of the extreme lawlessness in some places, it cannot investigate all of them." She writes: "The paradox of approving a new constitution while the rule of law is ignored countrywide was not lost on the 502 delegates at the [Constitutional] Loya Jirga. For sitting in the front row of the assembly [were] the most notorious warlords of all, the leaders of the main mujaheddin factions -- Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Sheik Mohammad Asif Mohseni and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former communist."

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says hopes for meaningful liberalizations from Iran's reformist legislature "have been dashed and voters have sunk into sullen apathy." As parliamentarians stage a fifth day of protest against a Guardians Council decision to bar many reformers from running in February elections, the paper says there is "little sign of wider support, in particular from the students, who notably took to the streets in 1999 and 2003." The conservative council, "[armed] with the constitutional means and the naked force to thwart the reformers, [appears] to hold the trump cards."

And stuck in the middle is reformist President Mohammad Khatami, trying, on the one hand, "to persuade the Council of Guardians to reconsider its decision and the MPs -- including his brother -- to end their sit-in." As part of the clerical establishment himself, Khatami has tried to implement liberal changes in accordance with the constitution. But ultimately, real power in Iran rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardians Council. "Unwilling to challenge the source of their authority," the "Telegraph" says, "Mr. Khatami has simply looked ineffective."

The "Telegraph" concludes that the "middle way of reform championed by Mr. Khatami will give way to outright opposition." And that confrontation, it says, "could prove really explosive."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:

"The Wall Street Journal" today carries a contribution by Bill Evers, a member of the Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. For several months last year, Evers served as a senior adviser on education to L. Paul Bremer, the chief civilian U.S. administrator in Iraq.

The U.S. administration charged Evers and his colleagues with "getting the children, teachers and textbooks back in the classroom." They also sought to create the conditions that would allow both children and teachers to concentrate on normal schoolwork. "Iraq has a tradition of valuing education and a reputation for having produced, in the pre-Saddam [Hussein] era, some of the best architects, doctors and engineers in the Arab Middle East," says Evans.

But under the Saddam Hussein regime, propaganda was commonly printed in textbooks, Evens says. A history book published during that era might allege, for example, "that the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was merely an instance of the warlike nature of the Persians and their eternal hostility toward the Arabs." Last year, Iraqi schoolteachers "decided that Hussein's civics textbooks were so full of propaganda that they were not salvageable." Thus, some courses were removed from the curriculum until better materials could be found.

Today, it is Iraqis who are rebuilding the education system. Evans says he and his colleagues "almost always handed on responsibilities [as] soon as possible" to locals. Iraq's citizens have taken on the responsibility and "are now charting the future course of education in their country."

"Georgia is a country where cities are often dark at night because there is no electricity, where the winter air is sweet with wood smoke because there is no gas for heat, where low-paid teachers sell books at the roadside to earn a living."

Writing from Telavi, roughly 35 miles east of Tbilisi, Seth Mydans of "The New York Times" says Georgia is a nation "rich with fruits and vineyards," and yet most people "do not have regular jobs or [must] travel abroad to find work, [while] foster homes are crowded with abandoned children," left because their families could not afford to care for them.

"The wave of public fury that drove Eduard A. Shevardnadze from the presidency in November was not at heart about stolen elections, corruption or repression," Mydans says. "It was because people in this once comfortable little nation are cold at night and hungry and jobless, without a pane of glass to fix a window."

The new president, 36-year-old U.S.-educated Mikheil Saakashvili, "has warned against extravagant hopes. He cannot simply reopen Georgia's dead and empty factories, switch on the gas and electricity and start handing out paychecks to teachers and policemen."

But Mydans says, following their country's peaceful revolution, some of Georgia's citizens "seem too desperate with relief and yearning to listen to him."

Today, even among the lucky ones that pursue higher education, most young people "graduate directly from institutes and colleges into joblessness." Mydans cites one school official as saying that unless the economy "somehow comes to life," many of Georgia's children "[are] likely to follow their parents into poverty and unemployment."

LE FIGARO:

Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Adrien Jaulmes says the events of recent months in Georgia have placed the ruler of the breakaway republic of Adjaria in a "delicate" position. Aslan Abashidze, who has ruled the province with an iron fist since 1990, is consistently re-elected with a dubious 95 percent of the vote, Jaulmes says. He was also the last bastion of support for Georgia's ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was deposed in November.

Ever since, Jaulmes says, Abashidze has been afraid that President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili will attempt to re-establish Tbilisi's control over Adjaria. Saakashvili has repeatedly stated that he would seek to re-unite Georgia under Tbilisi's rule. And fearful of the spread of grassroots activism like that of Georgia's Kmara! (Enough!) movement, Abashidze has closed the borders of his "fiefdom" and re-established the state of emergency declared in the wake of the presidential election.

Jaulmes cites Abashidze's communications director as saying Adjaria has its own international television station, an opera, and a helicopter factory. But Batumi, the regional capital, is hardly a scene of "Florentin revival," says Jaulmes. In shops, saleswomen in coats huddle around small heaters. In every window can be seen wooden stoves, the main source of heat in a city practically deprived of electricity, whose potholes become dangerous pitfalls in darkened streets. And when the power in Batumi goes out, only Abashidze's residential palace stays alight, fed by a special generator. Jaulmes says the palace shines in the darkness like a ship lost at sea.
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