Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of the major dailies today finds discussion of Russia's new prime minister; Washington's controversial alliance with Uzbek President Islam Karimov; maintaining security in Iraq following the 2 March twin bombings in Baghdad and Karbala; and the late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, who one commentary calls a Balkan leader who exhibited "rare political courage."
An editorial in the British "Guardian" says there is a real possibility that Iraq could descend into sectarian civil war, following this week's twin bomb blasts targeting Shi'a celebrations of the Ashura holy festival, the most revered date in the Shi'a calendar. It remains unclear who is responsible for the blasts, but some speculation has centered on a Jordanian-born Sunni militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, prompting fears that Shi'as might seek to exact revenge on members of Iraq's Sunni population.
However, Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has thus far "deflected popular outrage by blaming the American occupiers for the lack of security in Karbala." But the paper says al-Sistani's real message “was to cool it and remain united -- and so far the Shi'a are doing just that."
The policy of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority is to prevent Kurdish or Shi'a militias from "taking the law into their own hands. But having failed to police the borders, and having rashly disbanded the Iraqi army, the U.S. and its allies have created a security vacuum that cannot be easily filled" by the nascent Iraqi police force. The agreement (1 March) on an interim constitution allowed the militias to retain their arms until they can be properly incorporated into an Iraqi national guard.
"[The] idea of building a new state in the sort of security the coalition currently offers is ludicrous," "The Guardian" says. "Without giving clear autonomy to the UN, thus allowing many more peacekeeping troops into the country, coalition troops will be hard put merely to protect themselves, never mind the Iraqis."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
An editorial in today's edition says everything Russian President Vladimir Putin does these days "is perceived as a move to further consolidate his power." But "the real question is how he intends to use that power, and the nomination of Mikhail Fradkov as the new prime minister points in a promising direction."
Fradkov has worked on what the paper calls "some of Russia's toughest issues" -- as a foreign trade representative, chief tax collector, and as Russian envoy to the European Union. The "IHT" says Fradkov has "been doing what Russia needs to do, reform the administration, get the books in order, combat corruption, halt capital flight and work on Russia's international standing."
While Fradkov's career history suggests that he, like Putin, was a onetime KGB official, the paper says it seems he "was on the trade and economic side of the Soviet intelligence octopus, not the cloak-and-dagger side."
But what is more important is that Fradkov "was not involved in the corrupt privatization schemes under [former President] Boris Yeltsin, and apparently has not been part of the infighting among various Kremlin factions. His appointment may be a sign that Putin finally has the confidence to pick someone capable of launching serious economic reforms in his second term."
Putin "has accumulated too much power [and] it is imperative he be reminded [that] he is being carefully watched for any further symptoms of despotism." But the appointment "of a competent official with a solid track record and valuable foreign experience is, for now at least, a reassuring sign."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
In a personal commentary in the Paris-based daily, Slovenian presidential foreign affairs adviser Melita Gabric discusses the life and legacy of the late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, whose plane crashed in the mountains of southern Bosnia on 26 February, killing everyone on board.
When an ethnic Albanian insurgency erupted in early 2001, Trajkovski "resisted severe pressure from radical elements on both sides" and sought a political rather than military solution. Gabric says, "As the tragic recent history of the region makes clear, people in the Balkans tend to be deeply suspicious of any compromise, which is often equated with defeat or weakness. Trajkovski's public striving for a political solution that included concessions to the Albanians -- whom ethnic Macedonians still tend to resent -- was an act of rare political courage."
Trajkovski's moves in this regard were aided by the international community. Both the European Union and NATO acted quickly to mediate the dispute, denouncing the insurgency while pushing Skopje to grant the sizeable ethnic Albanian minority greater rights. The Ohrid Agreement brought an end to the clashes in August of that year.
"Unlike what happened in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo, Macedonia's avoidance of full-scale ethnic war illustrates how a timely, decisive and concerted reaction by the international community can help avert civil war," Gabric says. Macedonia was also "fortunate to have a leader intent on avoiding war and adept at using existing institutions to do so."
The Macedonian people must now honor Trajkovski's legacy "by electing a successor capable of showing moderation and of keeping the country on the path of stability, economic recovery and inter-ethnic comity."
THE WASHINGTON POST
An editorial today discusses what it calls "one of the most important decisions the [U.S.] administration will make this year about its alliances in the war on terrorism."
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's "strategic partnership" with the United States calls on him to make "substantial and continuing progress" in the areas of human rights, press freedom, and democratic reforms. But the paper says, "Not only has Uzbekistan implemented none of those reforms, it hasn't even stopped torturing prisoners."
The paper says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "has often vowed not to repeat the Cold War mistake of embracing useful dictators while ignoring their domestic policies, especially in Muslim states such as Uzbekistan." And yet U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld praised "the wonderful cooperation we've received from the government of Uzbekistan" on a visit to Tashkent last week. The U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, issued last week, said that Uzbekistan "is an authoritarian state with limited civic rights" that suppresses the media, opposition political parties, and the free practice of religion.
Instead of implementing widespread reforms, Karimov "toys with the token gestures that other dictators, from Cairo to Beijing, have traditionally used to mollify Washington." The "Post" says if the U.S. falls for these transparent ploys, it will be sending a signal to the rest of Central Asia and the world "that the spread of freedom still matters less to the United States than the 'wonderful cooperation' of a dictator.
Writing in France's leading daily, Veronique Maurus discusses the publication earlier this year of a detailed list of those with whom Saddam Hussein was allegedly doing business. The revelations, she says, were explosive. The list, discovered by an Iraqi newspaper and confirmed by the authorities, names more than 270 people in 50 countries that received crude oil allowances for the price of their lobbyism.
In Switzerland, Great Britain, Jordan, Bulgaria, and in most of the countries named, political or judicial investigations were opened. In Paris there was no official reaction, nor in Moscow. Maurus says that, apparently, denials were enough. The parties involved claimed that the lists were vague and the mechanism of so-called "allowances" sufficiently obscure to discourage curiosity.
But the revelations of Iraq's "Al Mada" newspaper are true, she says. Testimonies collected from all over the world continue to confirm the allegations. There were only minor inaccuracies in the report, she says, largely due to English-Arabic and then Arabic-English translations.
Hussein indeed corrupted the world under the nose of the UN. "But some more than others," Maurus says. The friends of the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad were many, and took part all along the supply chain from the refinery to the eventual buyers. Oil traders based in Switzerland, Monaco, and elsewhere were used as intermediaries in a widespread, systematic trade with Baghdad.
The system being used was not, in itself, illegal, Maurus says. It was the uses to which it was put and who really profited that raise the real questions. Re-establishing justice demands further investigation, she says.
Writing in "Eurasia View," Benafsheh Keynoush says conservative leaders in Iran "have made it clear that they do not believe political pluralism is conducive to overcoming Iran's myriad social and economic challenges." They want continued limits on freedom of speech and the independent press and will, in general, "seek to expand the state's authority over civic and religious institutions."
But at the same time, Keynoush says conservatives "may aim to relieve some of the building discontent among Iran's vast under-30 population with well-targeted, yet largely token, moves that ease some social and political restrictions."
He writes: "To a large extent, the conservatives' political fortunes will be tied to their ability to solve the country's deep economic dilemmas." Widespread joblessness has led to much popular discontent. And to pave the way for economic reforms, Iranian conservatives "are likely to explore ways to normalize relations with the United States." They may also seek "to soften Iran's international image, striving to strengthen ties with its neighbors and expand trade relations with the European Union."
Popular apathy "may well be an ally of conservatives in the implementation of their agenda. To many Iranians at present, it matters little whether the reformists or conservatives are in power because either way, expectations are low that authorities can produce needed political and economic reforms."
Keynoush says it will be the "interplay of Iran's reformist and conservative agendas, along with Iran's future foreign policy towards its neighbors, Europe and the United States [that] will determine whether or not the conservatives will be successful in ensuring Iran's stability and the security of the Islamic regime."