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Western Press Review: Uzbek-U.S. Relations, Adjaria's Independence Bid, And The Spanish Vote -- A Terrorist Victory Or Democracy At Work?

  • Charles Carlson

Prague, 16 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several major dailies today tackle the question of whether the decision of Spanish voters to oust the ruling Popular Party in a 14 March vote was a direct result of last week's attacks on commuter trains in Madrid. The bombings are suspected by some of being the work of Al-Qaeda, acting in retribution for Spain's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Several observers question whether the vote represents a victory for terrorism in demonstrating that a well-timed attack can topple a ruling party that otherwise seemed headed for election victory. Others maintain the poll is a testament to Spanish democracy, as voters made a clear distinction at the polls between their government's role in the campaign against terrorism, which they support, and a war in Iraq that 90 percent of the electorate opposed. Other issues looked at today include Washington's relations with Uzbekistan and strides toward independence for Georgia's restive republic of Adjaria.


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today says Spanish voters, "in their wisdom," ousted the ruling Popular Party in 14 March elections and brought the Socialists to power. "Only three days after 10 bombs killed 200 in Madrid, this exercise in free choice shows the difference between terror and democracy."

But the paper says there is little doubt that terrorists themselves "will take away a different, and more dangerous, lesson from the Spanish vote: That by murdering innocents they were able to topple one of the pillars of the Western anti-terror alliance." The party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had seemed assured of victory before the attacks.

The victorious Socialist Party was able "to exploit the bombings by arguing that somehow they were caused by Mr. Aznar's alliance with America." They were aided "by the tactical mistake of the Aznar government in insisting that the bombers had been from the Basque ETA, even as evidence built that Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda may have been responsible."

It is all too possible that terrorists will now conclude "that, with an investment of only a few dozen backpack bombs, they were able to rout a major power." The paper says they "are sure to try the same thing elsewhere in Europe, and almost certainly between now and the November elections in the U.S."


When Spain went to the polls last weekend, voters "turned out the Spanish government that had allied with the United States" in the campaign to seek regime change in Iraq. But the paper says this "democratic display of discontent should not be mistaken for a surrender to terrorism." The victorious Socialist Party, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, immediately pledged to "combat all forms" of terrorism.

The paper says observers, particularly the United States, should read the Spanish poll results "as demonstrating anew that most of the world does not see the Iraq campaign as part of the global war on terror."

Many Spaniards blamed Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his government for initially "insisting that ETA -- not Islamic terrorists opposed to Spain's involvement in Iraq -- had committed the despicable bombing. The attacks may not have changed votes but they increased turnout, benefiting the Socialists."

The L.A.-based daily goes on to say Washington must "work to decrease its isolation from European nations that should be close allies; fighting terrorists like Al-Qaeda requires other countries' help. So does rebuilding and providing security in Iraq." Governments the world over "must cooperate to cut off financing, arrest individuals and cripple terrorist groups." But to do so, they "must win the support of their people for action."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" says, "That terrorists can dramatically alter the course of political history in a European democracy is the deeply unpalatable, but inescapable, conclusion to be drawn from the outcome of Spain's general election."

As the ruling Popular Party looked poised to win another term in power, multiple bomb blasts on a Madrid commuter train sparked a massive political backlash. Popular anger swelled as Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar insisted the bombs were the work of ETA -- even as evidence mounted that the attacks may have been the work of Al-Qaeda, retribution for Spain's support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Aznar supported Washington's campaign despite poll results that showed some 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the action. "The Independent" says much of the Spanish electorate "voted the government out because it saw [the 11 March] atrocity and the deaths of 200 people as a direct consequence of the decision of the outgoing premier [to] support the war."

It seems Aznar's Popular Party "was made to pay a heavy price for Spain's involvement in Iraq, and not just its handling of the bombing." If this is truly the case, "then we are looking at a disturbing first instance of Islamist militants influencing, if not dictating, the outcome of a major Western election."


The London-based daily's Quentin Peel and Judy Dempsey join the discussion on whether the election ouster of Spain's ruling party can be considered a direct result of the terrorist attack on a Madrid commuter train. Spain is "bitterly divided on the debate," say the authors. "One school of thought maintains that the result represents a victory for terrorism -- because a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led 'war' on terrorism was defeated as a direct result of a massive terrorist attack."

But the other side "insists that the result was instead a triumph for democracy, a direct consequence of a big increase in voter turnout in defiance of the terrorist bombs, combined with an angry rejection of what was seen as a cynical government effort to exploit the bloodshed to win more votes."

Both sides "have powerful arguments in their favor," say Dempsey and Peel. "For the rest of the European Union, and for the U.S. administration in Washington, both the outcome of the election and its interpretation are of critical importance." The Spanish election "seems certain to change the geopolitical balance in Europe, with a vital country switching from a pro-U.S. stance to a far more critical position. Yet many observers fear that the question of whether terrorism is seen to have triumphed is likely to prove still more important in the long run."

But many see the Spanish reaction as being more nuanced, that voters made a clear distinction between the campaign against terrorism, which they support, and the war in Iraq, which they do not.


Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group remarks that the UN special rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, has described the use of torture in Uzbekistan as "systematic."

And yet, says Stroehlein, "kind treatment" has been "the approach of the international community toward the Uzbek regime. Despite having promised in recent years that it would mend its ways, the government of Uzbekistan has not made any improvements to its appalling human rights record or undertaken any substantial reforms to fix the deteriorating economy."

And still, "visiting officials -- from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Monetary Fund -- seem to believe that Uzbekistan is making progress when it clearly is not."

The human rights situation "is particularly disturbing," he says. Police "regularly harass journalists, nongovernment workers, human rights activists and those brave or foolish enough to try to develop opposition political parties."

Stroehlein says, "It is time for the international community to drop its ineffective soft approach and get more hard-edged in dealing with Uzbekistan." By "cozying up to the repressive regime in Uzbekistan," the United States is "doing serious long-term damage to [its] image [in] this important, predominantly Muslim region."

And Uzbeks watch "with increasing incomprehension as the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world, continues to support and praise the repressive regime they live under."


An item in "Le Monde" by Natalie Nougayrede discusses the rising tensions between Georgia and its autonomous region of Adjaria, as Tbilisi keeps its army on a high state of alert. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's convoy was blocked by Adjar troops as he sought to enter the republic on 14 March. He has responded by instituting a partial economic blockade of the restive republic.

Other powers have responded with concern over instability in this strategically important region. Georgia has become of particular interest to the United States, which is heavily invested in the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will connect Caspian oil to Turkey's Mediterranean coast and on to Western markets. And the Russian Foreign Ministry has already warned Saakashvili's administration that it would be highly ill advised for Tbilisi to seek a military solution to the standoff.

The pro-Moscow administration of Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze appears to be convinced that Tbilisi is planning an overthrow of his regime. Without proclaiming outright independence, Abashidze has maintained de facto control over Adjaria for several years. But now he is concerned that his hold on power is tenuous, says the Adjar opposition. Abashidze is fearful of upcoming 28 March elections, which might see his party failing to pass the 7 percent threshold for representation in the Georgian parliament. He thus seeks to provoke a confrontation with Tbilisi so he can proclaim the vote illegitimate if need be, say some observers.