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Western Press Review: Putin's Speech, NATO's Black Sea Interests, Prosecuting Wartime Abuses, The Arab Summit

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 28 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics being discussed in the media today are Russian President Vladimir Putin's first formal address this week since winning a second term; refocusing NATO attention on the Black Sea-South Caucasus region; determining command responsibility for crimes committed in wartime; events in Iraq, as preparations continue for the 30 June handover of power; and this week's summit meeting of Arab leaders in Tunis, among other issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's first formal address to the Federal Assembly (both legislative bodies) since his reelection in March is the topic of an editorial today in New York's leading daily. The Kremlin head's words this week (26 May) showed "the real, core [Putin], not a rookie [or] a shaky politician looking for votes. The speech was the program of a man very much in charge of Russia. Too much, in fact," the paper remarks dryly.

Putin's main theme was his commitment to tackle the tough economic problems -- including housing, health care, education, and jobs -- that affect every Russian family. And while such pledges are not original, Putin is "serious," the paper says. "His enormous popularity among Russians comes largely from his success in bringing stability and growth to a chaotic land." Aided by high oil prices, Putin has made "impressive progress in reforming the decrepit economic institutions he inherited."

Yet despite the welcome promises of economic reform, "The New York Times" says it was Putin's "Soviet echoes" that reverberated most loudly through the great Marble Hall of the Kremlin. The most chilling was Putin's denunciation of civil associations that have been critical of his government and his swipe at Western critics, whom he accused of trying to prevent Russia from being strong and free."

Such comments are reminders of a time when the Kremlin assumed "that economic growth and national security require an all-powerful, centralized state apparatus."

The paper writes: "The longing of the Russians for a measure of security is understandable. But it is imperative that Putin be reminded at every turn not to confuse the laudable goal of improving the lives of the Russians with a restoration of the authoritarian, centralized rule that destroyed their lives to begin with."

A joint contribution today by James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation and Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution says the United States must soon make needed changes in its military strategy if it is to stabilize Iraq.

"Reaching the goal of a stable, unified and non-threatening Iraq does look increasingly difficult," say the authors. But the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would create a security vacuum "that would quickly be filled by the most heavily armed and violent groups in Iraq." Iraq's many different ethnic, religious, and cultural communities "would probably struggle to establish control over that country's vast energy riches. Civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide [would] be a likely result. Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey -- would probably be drawn in, supplying arms and money to their preferred factions."

To achieve success in Iraq, the United States needs a major strategic shift. "Henceforth, American forces cannot afford to destroy villages to save them. They cannot afford to use artillery, gunships and ordnance from fixed-wing aircraft in populated areas, regardless of the provocation. They cannot afford to sacrifice innocent Iraqi civilians to reduce American casualties. They cannot afford to sweep up, incarcerate and hold for months thousands of Iraqis -- many of them innocent -- to apprehend a smaller number of guilty ones. They cannot afford to use pain, privation or humiliation to secure information."

Dobbins and Gordon say an insurgency "cannot be defeated without the support of the population." And the United States will not receive that support from the Iraq people "unless it puts public security at the center of its military strategy."

Vladimir Socor of the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation says that at its upcoming (27-28 June) summit in Istanbul, "NATO can celebrate a triumph." Seven new members from the Baltic to the Black Sea will attend the alliance summit as members. "This -- along with the previous accession round by three Central European countries -- represents the alliance's greatest strategic, political and moral victory in its 55-year history."

But the alliance "cannot avoid addressing the issue of peacekeeping and conflict resolution on its own vital strategic perimeter," Socor says. "Thirteen years after the end of the Soviet Union, peacekeeping in this region remains in practice Moscow's monopoly, which only serves to freeze the political settlements of the conflicts."

Two years ago, both NATO and the United States seemed ready "to engage jointly with Russia in peace-support operations and conflict-resolution efforts in Moldova, Georgia and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. [However,] nothing further has been heard about these intentions since those summits."

Socor observes that U.S. "forces and resources are now overextended worldwide." Thus he suggests European nations should be ready "to take the lead in peace-support operations and conflict settlement in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region, Europe's doorstep."

The United States, NATO, and the European Union "have the strategic and democratic motivations, as well as the means, to initiate a transformation of peacekeeping and conflict resolution at this crossroads, where the access routes to the Greater Middle East and the energy transit routes to Europe intersect." Socor says this "must become a Euro-Atlantic priority." June's NATO summit agenda would be "incomplete" if it did not indicate its readiness to address this vital issue.

In a contribution to London's leading financial daily, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Scheffer, discusses the difficulties of determining command responsibility for abuses committed in wartime. In the wake of the Abu Ghurayb prison scandal in Iraq, Scheffer looks at how the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague has dealt with offenses committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

He says some of the same "[fundamental] questions of 'responsibility'" that arose from the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at the Trnopolje Camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina are likely to be addressed in the Abu Ghurayb investigation. Was there, from top U.S. administration officials down to prison guards, a common intention to institute practices prohibited by the Geneva Conventions? Who had de facto control over the U.S. personnel and private contractors conducting interrogations? And who had the authority "to subject detainees to inhumane treatment?"

The Hague tribunal has, in recent years, determined "responsibility" for abuses and the complicity of military and civilian leaders "by asking whether the individual had superior responsibility for subordinates, or was a co-perpetrator in a joint criminal enterprise, or aided or abetted an atrocity by knowingly assisting or encouraging it."

The tribunal's determination of command responsibility rests on whether "there was a superior-subordinate relationship where the accused had 'effective control' over the perpetrator. Such control should exist when a superior has the power to prevent or punish atrocities committed by subordinates."

The Hague tribunal "has shown that responsibility for atrocities, especially war crimes committed against detainees, requires serious and objective review of evidence up the chain of command." Scheffer says, "The die, therefore, is cast for U.S. judges and Congress, which can punish such crimes, to enforce the law with unassailable integrity."

London's weekly magazine observes that the meeting of Arab leaders in Tunis last week "was supposed to have been about two things: political reform and a uniform stand on thorny issues such as Iraq and Palestine." But following the summit's end, "Commentators from Morocco to the Gulf, in unprecedentedly uniform derision, variously deemed the meeting 'ridiculous,' 'a failure,' 'empty rhetoric' and 'instantly forgettable.'"

The strains between the Arab League's 22 members have been exacerbated by the "muscular" approach to the region by the United States, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and Washington's unflagging support for Israeli policies, its "icy hostility to old adversaries" like Syria, and its "aloofness" from longtime allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the sudden U.S. preoccupation with promoting democracy throughout the Middle East has "shaken Arab palaces and streets alike."

But the heads of state and envoys meeting in Tunis did make an attempt to address "both their own peoples' and Americans' concerns." The summit's final communique "restated a commitment to a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace and made a new gesture to Israel by condemning 'all operations that target civilians, without distinction.'" The text also, "unsurprisingly," condemned the U.S. president's recent rejection of the right of displaced Palestinians to return to Israel as well as his contention that Israel should be allowed to keep some of the territory it has occupied since 1967. Some statements were made about the leaders' commitment to social and political reform in the region, but many of these were "notably vague."

The "Economist" notes that 34 Arab nongovernmental organizations from 14 countries issued a statement of protest, calling for a specific timetable for change or for holding elections.