Prague, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary today focuses largely on Iraq, with several newspapers looking at U.S. President George W. Bush's remarks at a rare press conference on 13 April. Other topics include rising populism in Central and Eastern Europe ahead of EU entry; growing political opposition in Armenia; and controversial plans for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal" today says the panic that accompanies talk of resurgent nationalism in Central and Eastern European states is "wholly unjustified."
Events in Slovakia have sparked the most recent anxiety, as former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar -- whose "authoritarianism kept the Slovaks out of NATO and EU" -- looks set to win a presidential runoff on 17 April.
In Poland, the Euro-skeptic party of Andrzej Lepper, "a pig farmer turned demagogue," is leading opinion polls. "Hard-core Communists" are rising in popularity in the Czech Republic while a Romanian "ultranationalist with a sharp tongue" is making a bid for the presidency.
But the current appeal of radical populists in Central and Eastern Europe "isn't a testament to the region's backwardness, economic or political," the paper says. "As in prosperous France or Holland, populists exploit a vacuum in national politics."
France's nationalist, anti-immigrationist Jean-Marie Le Pen "taps into anxiety about globalization and frustration with a patronizing political elite." Poland's Lepper "rails against the EU and globalization -- as well as pervasive official corruption."
The workings of the European Union help explain much of this voter frustration: "A lot of the decisions affecting [people's] lives are made in Brussels, from caps on government spending to trade protection." And this "democratic deficit" helps fuel the populists and nationalists. "National democracies, which have [been] dominated by inward-looking elites for too long, could use some housecleaning, as well," the paper says. "The extremists are pushing taboo topics onto the political agenda -- where they always belonged."
THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Rising anticoalition violence in Iraq "shows more vividly than ever that the United States and its allies are not really waging war against gunmen, bombers and kidnappers but fighting a political battle for legitimacy," says the secular "The Christian Science Monitor." "And right now the legitimacy of the U.S. plan to implant an Iraq democracy hangs less on an increase in U.S. forces or the number of militants [than] on the shuttle diplomacy of UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi."
For the past several days, Brahimi has been trying to forge a consensus among Iraqi leaders on who will lead Iraq after the proposed 30 June handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition. Brahimi yesterday proposed a caretaker Iraqi government that would be led by a prime minister, a president, and two vice presidents, with perhaps a "consultative assembly" to advise the government until elections can be held in January.
The paper makes its own suggestion: expanding the Iraqi Governing Council's membership from the current 25 to include more members with broad support among the Iraqi population. This seems "the best option for a temporary government until elections can be held."
The real task is "finding enough Iraqis willing to risk their lives -- in a new army or government -- for a democracy that rises above ethnicity or religion. The United States didn't prepare for that task well before the war," the "Monitor" says. And now, with the 30 June deadline approaching, "Iraq is suffering a jockeying for power among Iraqis and active resistance to democracy from terrorists."
Brahimi must now "find a few good Iraqis willing to lead," and who are willing to brave the risks.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Jim Hoagland says "[abrupt] changes in military tactics" by U.S. forces in Iraq and "a sharp rise in casualties are sending shock waves through that country and through U.S. public opinion." But in a rare 16 April press conference, U.S. President George W. Bush "did little" to reassure either Iraqis or Americans.
The U.S. president's "laudable determination" to emphasize that the United States seeks to liberate, rather than occupy, Iraq "was undermined by his studied vagueness on his plans to prove that" with the proposed 30 June handover of power.
Hoagland says "significant powers" must be devolved to Iraqi politicians by the deadline, and not just to "Iraqi technocrats who may be more malleable to U.S. demands." He says there can be "no effective -- or morally justifiable -- hidden American agenda of keeping power behind a facade of ending the occupation."
A separate editorial in the same nwespaper says, "You know there's trouble when a president begins to attack his critics rather than respond to the substance of their criticism." Such tactics were somewhat in evidence at the U.S. president's news conference this week in his response to calls for more multilateral cooperation in Iraq and his rebuttal of the comparisons between Iraq and the quagmire U.S. forces once faced in Vietnam. Bush said the comparison simply "sends the wrong message."
"The Washington Post" says Bush did a good job "explaining the stakes in Iraq" and "painted a stirring picture of what stability and democracy in Iraq could mean for the region and the world." But his response to many of the more difficult issues raised by the media "can't be to question the critics' legitimacy; it has to be to explain why they are wrong. On that score, this administration continues to fall short."
The more frequent attacks of the past two weeks in Iraq "have not just raised questions about U.S. will, which Mr. Bush appropriately sought to answer. They also have raised questions about U.S. strategy, which Mr. Bush failed to even acknowledge."
France's leading daily "Le Monde" says it is now clear that U.S. President George W. Bush does not intend to alter his strategy in Iraq. Bush denies that there is either a popular insurrection in Iraq or the makings of a civil war; in short, there is nothing that would get in the way of the scheduled 30 June handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi administration.
But the paper asks, with less than three months to go until the transfer, does Bush have an idea of what type of authority will represent Iraq's legitimate sovereignty? "Le Monde" also questions the necessity of "internationalizing" the occupation, as many are urging. The American occupiers are hated by the Iraqis more and more each day, "Le Monde" says.
The single point that Bush's news conference confirmed is that the United States is going to send more troops to Iraq. And this indicates the distress of the White House, the paper says. The Iraq campaign is turning into a situation in which violence leads to more violence and prevents a political exit. Fighting both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims will do nothing but increase anti-American sentiment in Iraq, making a political solution impossible.
The truth is that the Iraq adventure has been a failure, "Le Monde" says. In a year, the United States has failed to stabilize Iraq. The Iraqi population wavers between hostility and fear in its reaction to the occupation. A part if the country is at war and insecurity reigns elsewhere. Investors and humanitarian agencies are fleeing the country and there has been a regional resurgence in nationalism and radical Islamism. And the damage has been immense for everyone, says "Le Monde."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
Yerevan-based journalist Kim Iskyan, writing in the English-language "The Moscow Times," says Armenia "is trying to join Georgia in throwing off a corrupt and repressive regime."
Over a year ago, Armenian President Robert Kocharian "followed up a fraudulent presidential election victory with a correspondingly counterfeit parliamentary poll a few weeks later." A subsequent call by the normally pro-presidential Constitutional Court for a referendum on the matter within a year provided "a shred of hope."
But now, with still no referendum on the horizon, the Armenian opposition is focused on forcing a referendum or calling on the president to resign. Iskyan remarks that Armenia's activists may have been "naively inspired" by the Georgian "Rose Revolution" of November that led to the ouster of the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze.
Part of the problem was that the Armenian opposition "hasn't convinced the cynical electorate that it is more interested in bringing about real change than in having a turn at the feeding trough. And for all his government's incompetence and corruption, Kocharian has kept most Armenians supplied with heat, electricity and water most of the time."
But the "brutally bloody" response to recent protests in Yerevan may have changed all that. Thousands of protesters were hit with water cannon and stun grenades in front of the parliament building. Opposition offices were seized by police and many activist leaders went into hiding to avoid arrest.
Armenia is "[sliding] down the slippery former-Soviet slope toward dictatorship," Iskyan says. And now that "constitutional and peaceful means of bringing about change have been met with barbed wire and a kick in the head, watch for the opposition to explore other means."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial today in "The New York Times" says U.S. President George W. Bush's endorsement of an Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza in return for retaining some settlements in the West Bank was a "costly blow [to] America's credibility as an honest broker for a Middle East peace."
The paper says it has long seemed "inevitable" that any lasting peace "would allow Israelis to keep some of the large West Bank settlements [and] would offer, at most, a very limited right of return for the Palestinians whose families fled at the dawn of a Jewish state. But by accepting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's terms absent any negotiation between the parties, Mr. Bush is essentially supporting Israel's right to impose a settlement of its choice on the Palestinians."
The paper calls Bush's move a "drastic and unfortunate policy reversal" that will "compromise any subsequent attempts by Washington to broker a lasting settlement." Many international observers -- including the Palestinians, moderate Arab states, and European allies – are "furious" that Bush accepted Sharon's proposal.