This week's "Economist" discusses politics in the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania as both nations undergo government shake-ups in the month leading up to European Union accession in May.
Riga "has just lost its 11th government since independence in 1991," the magazine says. After Prime Minister Einars Repse fired his deputy, Ainars Slesers, the latter's Latvia's First Party pulled out of the ruling coalition, leaving it with a minority in parliament.
But such political growing pains are common in post-Soviet states, notes the London-based weekly. Baltic neighbor Estonia has been ruled by "11 governments under seven prime ministers" since 1990. Poland's current government is the first in a decade and a half to have survived for two straight years. The reasons for these trends are varied, "The Economist" says, including too many small, fledgling political parties, "too many political-business ties dating to Soviet days, political systems in need of fine-tuning."
As for Lithuania, its parliament is now "in uncharted political territory with its impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas." A parliamentary inquiry in December 2003 found many of his advisers were linked "to influence-peddling, organized crime and perhaps the Russian secret services." And yet almost 20 percent of the electorate say they would vote for him in a new election, which places him a close second to the front-runner, former President Valdus Adamkus.
Given these poll numbers, "The Economist" remarks: "Being impeached may prove to have been the most popular thing Mr. Paksas has done since being elected."
Writing in the British "Independent," Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk says in the Arab world today, many states "are largely squalid, corrupt, brutal dictatorships." And this comes as no surprise, given that the Western world "created most of these dictators. We kicked off with kings and princes and -- if they didn't exercise sufficient control over the masses -- then we supported a wretched bunch of generals and colonels," he says.
The challenge of establishing democracy in these states today does not come from the population but "from the environment, the make-up of the patriarchal society and -- most important of all -- the artificial states which [the West] created for them."
Nations like these "do not and cannot produce democracy," he says. "The dictators we paid and armed and stroked ruled by torture and by tribe. Faced with nations which they in many cases did not believe in, the Arab peoples had confidence only in their tribes."
Fisk says in Iraq today, the promised June transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition will give a "mythical 'sovereignty' [to] a group of Iraqis chosen by the Americans and British."
Ostensibly, elections would soon follow. But Fisk says even if elections were held, "most Iraqis will vote according to tribe and religion. That is how their political system has worked for almost a hundred years and that is how the American-selected 'interim council' works today."
Writing in the regional daily "Eurasia View," CIS affairs analyst Sergei Blagov says Georgian-Russian relations "have been marked by mutual antagonism for much of the post-Soviet era."
Mikheil Saakashvili's rise to power in the "Rose Revolution" has been "a cause for concern in Moscow, given the Georgian president's ardent pro-Western views." But any mutual suspicions were not apparent at the summit this week in Moscow, when both Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed a strong desire to settle bilateral differences.
Saakashvili stressed his country's desire for improved political and economic relations with Moscow. The two nations signed agreements pledging to conduct media and information exchanges, re-establish a common trade commission, renew discussions on the Abkhazia question and look into increasing energy cooperation.
But Blagov says, "While embracing conciliatory rhetoric, Saakashvili pressed for a fast Russian withdrawal from its two remaining military bases in Georgia. To reassure his hosts, Saakashvili pledged that the U.S. military would not be permitted to establish a base in Georgia after Russian forces departed." However, little progress was made on this issue, which is one of the most contentious in bilateral relations.
Blagov says, "a significant sector of Russia's policy-making community remains skeptical that Saakashvili [truly] desires a close Georgian-Russian relationship. Nevertheless, there are indications that Moscow, while clearly expecting contentious negotiations down the road, sees Saakashvili as a far better negotiating partner than his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In a "Washington Post" piece republished today in "The Boston Globe," Pamela Constable discusses the decision last month by Kabul television to broadcast taped performances of women singing "for the first time in a decade of strict Islamic rule and two years of weak transitional government."
"After so many years of listening to shooting and rockets, what is wrong if people listen to me singing again?"
Constable says, "The move was cheered by urban viewers, but it immediately drew outraged opposition from the Supreme Court and an alliance of powerful Islamic groups."
Constable notes that the broadcasts are not live, nor "contemporary, nor provocative." Most "feature old footage of dignified Afghan women in head scarves and traditional, long-sleeved gowns, standing woodenly against backdrops of fields or mountains." But to Islamic conservatives, "who dominate the high court and control regional militias, the performances are a dangerous throwback to the libertine excesses of Afghanistan's fling with communism in the 1980s -- and a new threat to traditional Muslim values [after] a quarter-century of occupation, conflict and isolation."
Since the overthrow of Taliban rule, women have increasing freedoms -- "but opposition to their emancipation has also sharpened." The "most puritanical voices are those of the same Islamic militias that helped Western forces rout the Taliban -- but that have since proved to be only marginally less conservative in their traditional notions of Islam."
One popular Afghan singer is Nooria Parasto, who fled her country in the early 1990s and is now once again featured on reruns in Kabul. Remarking on the bitter controversy over female singers, Parasto asks: "After so many years of listening to shooting and rockets, what is wrong if people listen to me singing again?"
In the scandal over a top Pakistani scientist selling nuclear secrets on the black market, Francoise Chipaux of France's "Le Monde" says Abdul Qadeer Khan is merely a scapegoat for the actions of military authorities.
Khan admitted to illegally selling nuclear information to North Korea, Iran, and Libya but was later pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who denied he had any knowledge of Khan's actions. Chipaux says most Pakistanis, many of whom consider Khan a national hero, understand what is really going on.
From its inception, she says, the Pakistani nuclear program developed in the utmost secrecy. Its allotted budget was a mystery and not open to public debate. Even when Pakistan was living under a democratic regime, successive prime ministers -- Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif -- had little idea of what was going on in the Khan research laboratories.
Official claims leave many questions unanswered, Chipaux says. How did Khan's extravagant expenses not draw any attention? Given the extent of Khan's personal possessions, she says the sums must have been enormous.
Musharraf contended in "The New York Times" that for three years he had suspicions regarding certain contacts and movements. But Chipaux asks, why wasn't any action taken, when Khan was so closely monitored by secret service agents?
The first casualty of this affair is the credibility of the government in Islamabad, says Chipaux. And the desire to quickly bury these revelations does not herald a real change of attitude.