Prague, 16 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A look at coverage today in some of the world's major dailies reveals much commentary on the trial of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his Bank Menatep associate, Platon Lebedev. The trial of the two men on fraud and tax-evasion charges begins today in Moscow. Also at issue in the press today is the recent upsurge in militant violence in Karachi; and questioning U.S. foreign policy and democracy in the Arab world and beyond.
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
The joint trial of former Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his associate, Platon Lebedev, begins today in Moscow. The two billionaire businessmen, both charged with tax evasion and fraud, will be tried together in accordance with a request by the defense.
An editorial in today's "International Herald Tribune" says that, in effect, it will be "Russia and the rule of law that go on trial." At issue is the danger of the state "capriciously and selectively applying laws to suit its political interests." The paper says it seems likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is leaning on the judiciary to settle scores with tycoons who dared show an interest in politics." Also alarming is the hint that the Kremlin may be trying to reestablish direct state control over Russia's natural resources.
"If tax evasion were the real issue, every oligarch, and most every Russian, would be in the dock," the editorial says. And if Putin merely wanted to go after a few of Russia's so-called oligarchs to set an example, "there are far more unsavory examples to go after. [Khodorkovskii] at least turned Yukos into a globally admired, relatively transparent business."
Ultimately, the "critical question" is not whether Khodorkovskii and Lebedev are found guilty or acquitted, but whether the court "succeeds in demonstrating that it has delivered justice. Russia's courts have shown themselves sadly subservient to the government so far," the paper says. "Most Russians expect that they will continue down this familiar road, rubber-stamping the government's charges until [Khodorkovskii] and Lebedev are found guilty."
But "[for] the sake of Russian democracy, the judiciary needs to declare its independence." In light of the Soviet past, few things would be more destructive to Russia's nascent democracy than a high-profile, internationally monitored show trial.
THE WASHINGTON POST
The judicial prospects for former Yukos chief Khodorkovskii and his associates are "grim," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's "Pro et Contra Journal." "Given the mood in the Kremlin, [Khodorkovskii] can expect a long prison sentence," she says.
The economic ramifications of his arrest have been far-reaching. Shares in Yukos have since fallen steadily, "and the Russian stock market has followed." Many Russian businessmen, alarmed by Khodorkovskii's arrest, "are cashing out and moving abroad," while others now make sure to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin.
On the political front, the decline of the liberal opposition parties sponsored by the oligarchs has enabled the Kremlin "to reduce to irrelevance all political opposition," Lipman says. The parliament, or Duma, "was turned in to a rubber stamp, and the Kremlin gained unlimited control over the political process."
"Today there is no political competition in Russia," she says.
Khodorkovskii's acquisition of billions during Russia's massive post-Soviet privatization may have been somewhat "murky," says Lipman, although many businessmen did much the same thing. What set Khodorkovskii apart was that he eventually "opted for business transparency and launched a large-scale philanthropy focused on development of civil society. Now Russian capitalists know better than to sponsor any organization that looks even vaguely political."
Khodorkovskii had "emerged as too big, and increasingly independent, a political and economic player. The Russian state came to regard him as a strong rival who had to be dealt with. Vladimir Putin's way of dealing with him was to destroy him."
And now Russia "is paying a very high price for its president's victory."
THE FINANCIAL TIMES
In a contribution to London's financial daily, former U.S. Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole also addresses the Khodorkovskii-Lebedev trial beginning today, as well as the prosecution of other Russian oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovskii and Vladimir Gusinskii.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin's rise to power, such prosecutions have raised international concern, says Dole. "The heady days of glasnost and privatization that supposedly heralded a 'new Russia' have given way to an environment that reeks of political repression, social regression and re-nationalization of key industries."
With each prosecution, "the timing has been linked to the Kremlin's political agenda, the targets have been people posing a political threat to Mr. Putin, while Kremlin favorites engaged in similar business activities have remained untouched."
At the same time, independent journalists in Russia "continue to be silenced and there are even some rumblings about regulating Internet access."
Limiting the free press, the conduct of show trials and seizing personal assets "breed doubts about Moscow's respect for the rule of law and its commitment to democracy, human rights and free enterprise," Dole says.
Right now, Moscow "[is] desperately seeking full membership of the World Trade Organization and 'fuller' membership of the Group of Eight advanced countries, in bids that would measurably enhance Russia's stature and credibility as a global leader. But does it qualify?" Dole asks. "Doubts and opposition are growing with each additional stride backwards."
In the short term, prosecuting the oligarchs "[deflects] public rage about Russia's economic and social conditions from the government itself. But longer term, [the trials] undermine the foundations of rule of law, due process and political freedom essential to sustaining Russia's new economy."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
Staff writer Gerald Seib says a lot of people are worrying whether U.S. President George W. Bush's vision of democratic reform in the Middle East "will take hold amid the mess in Iraq." And as Seib says, "that is certainly something worth fretting about."
And yet less time and fewer resources are dedicated "to what may be a more important question: Will a new Bush initiative to promote democracy and liberalization across the Middle East take hold in Egypt?"
Seib says Egypt "is the Arab country where movement toward real democracy should be easiest. The building blocks are there. Egypt has political parties and a parliament that has existed for more than 80 years in more or less its current form." It has a vocal opposition press and allows open, albeit limited, political debate. Women also play "a significant political role."
So if democracy and political reform cannot grow in Egypt, "there's not much chance they will build strong roots in the broader Arab world," Seib says.
But Americans "take Egypt for granted." And they do so "at their own peril. [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak has done a masterful job of keeping Egypt stable, using carrots and sticks to keep an Islamic-extremist threat at bay. But if he doesn't leave a behind a stronger -- yes, a more democratic -- system, the risk of instability ahead is real and troubling."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
In a contribution to "The Moscow Times" today, former U.S. officials Graham Allison, Mark Brzezinski, and Toby Gati -- all specialists in U.S.-Russian relations -- say a strong bilateral relationship between Moscow and Washington remains vital.
"Russia's integration into the global economy and the establishment of an open and free society based on democratic values and the rule of law [is] still very much in the interest of the United States," they write. But the relationship between the White House and the Kremlin "must develop in a way that makes the Russian and American people safer, freer and more secure."
The United States "is strongest when its foreign policy engages its allies," say the authors. "American credibility suffers when the country is not true to its principles. The easy way out is to pretend that mistakes are never made and hope that over time people at home and around the world will stop asking tough questions."
Thus, the U.S. administration's "refusal to level with the American citizens about the decision to go to war in Iraq ... contradicts essential principles that have long guided U.S. leadership."
As for Russia, a "central building block for a more peaceful and prosperous future is how successful the people [are] at building the political and economic institutions necessary to safeguard their freedom and civil liberties." But copious evidence from today's Russia shows "hard-won gains are being eroded and that pressure is growing on political parties, civic groups and independent media."
The authors say the United States must demonstrate "that it is not necessary to choose between democracy and security by what they do at home and by the company they keep abroad."
Karachi was literally set ablaze in May, and not only because of the sectarian violence that flared up between its Sunni and Shi'a Muslim communities, says correspondent Marie-France Calle.
The slaying of a radical cleric, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, on 30 May sparked days of riots throughout the city. Calle says Shamzai was a personal friend of both the Taliban's Mullah Mohammad Omar and Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, and many see in his death the hand of the Pakistani secret service (ISI) and perhaps even the American CIA.
One Pakistani analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that by targeting Shamzai, the ISI was sending a very strong signal to Islamic militants. Shamzai also had connections to those behind the assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf and some outlawed Kashmiri groups. So, with his death, Islamabad might have essentially unleashed a hornets' nest.
An attack on 10 June on the convoy of a senior army official, Ahsan Saleem Hayat, targeted the Pakistani security services and left 11 dead. In the days following, 12-13 June, Pakistani police forces apprehended almost a dozen suspected militants with possible links to Al-Qaeda.
Calle says Pakistan's resumption of operations against suspected Al-Qaeda members in Waziristan and elsewhere, and the concurrent attack on a senior army official in Karachi, underscores the suspicions of a strong Al-Qaeda presence in the Pakistani harbor town.
She says there is no longer any doubt of the close connections between the rebels in the tribal zones of Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan, the staunch supporters of bin Laden, and the milieu of Islamist groups that swarm in Karachi.