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Western Press Review: Lost Chances In Iran, Crisis In South Ossetia, And The Two Faces Of Kabul

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 9 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics up for debate in some of the world's major dailies today are Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's regressive tendencies, a new chance to capture indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, the crisis in Georgia's separatist province of South Ossetia, lost diplomatic chances in Iran, and the two sides of Kabul, where the contrast between enduring poverty and the emergence of glitzy Western business ventures stands in stark relief.


In the two weeks since Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi became the leader of a sovereign nation, several observers the world over have lauded his firm grip on the reigns of power in a land beset by chaos and instability. But an editorial in "The New York Times" today sounds the alarm over his authoritarian style of governing, saying it harks back "[to] the old-style Arab authoritarianism the [U.S.] administration once dreamed of overturning throughout the Middle East."

The paper says one "chilling example" of this is the dictate Allawi requested this week that will give him "the authority to exercise martial law powers anywhere he sees fit." It says a readiness to impose martial law "is not an encouraging way to start" on the path toward free elections in January.

The fledging Iraqi security forces under Allawi's control are still "too weak and unreliable to bring Iraq's insurgencies under control. But armed with martial law powers and reinforced by the former Ba'athist army officers Allawi wants to restore to duty, these security forces could easily stifle Iraqi democracy before it is even born." The paper calls on Washington to urge Allawi "to proceed more carefully."

Allawi's "repressive reflexes" may find favor "among Iraqis who grew up under Saddam [Hussein] and equate authentic Iraqi leadership with strong-arm rule." But the editorial says "martial law decrees cannot resolve the ethnic and religious differences that threaten to tear Iraq apart even before American troops depart. That will take delicate political bargaining in an atmosphere free of governmental intimidation."


The newspaper's David Ignatius says the United States "faces an urgent question" that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has not resolved: “What is America's strategy for coping with the rising power of Iran?"

Ignatius says Washington and Tehran "have had extensive secret contacts since [11 September 2001] -- premised on their shared goal of destroying Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq." But despite extensive private negotiations, "nothing has come of the contacts -- partly because the Bush administration [was] internally divided over the right strategic course."

The author says, "Sadly, this internal dispute between administration pragmatists and ideologues over Iran is similar to the feuds that have obstructed policy on North Korea and Iraq." Iran, he says, is an "interesting case study of lost opportunities."

Cooperation following the 11 September 2001 attacks consisted largely of capturing and interrogating terrorist suspects from throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan. Washington wanted to interrogate many of those held captive in Iran, while Tehran sought to take over custody of members of the anti-Iran Mujahedin Khalq who had been captured in Iraq.

In May 2003, a meeting regarding the exchange of prisoners was held in Geneva. But ultraconservatives at the Pentagon convinced Washington not to go through with it, hoping someday to use the captured Mujahedin Khalq members as leverage against Tehran. The secret U.S.-Iranian contacts ended later that month.

And in the year since, Ignatius says, "Iranian hard-liners have crushed reformers there and pushed ahead with their program to acquire nuclear weapons."

"Finding the right strategy for dealing with an Iran that has nuclear ambitions and terrorist capabilities won't be easy," he says. But most close observers agree that a "grand bargain" is called for, one that "builds on the two countries' shared interests -- and seeks to satisfy each country's security concerns."


Writing from Han Pijesak in Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Los Angeles Times" staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman discusses Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war crimes suspect, who remains at large. Karadzic is accused of orchestrating the 11 July 1995 massacre of an estimated 7,500 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. Since his indictment, he has eluded thousands of NATO troops stationed in the country and, consequently, has jeopardized the credibility of the international community, Fleishman says.

Karadzic "is believed to be traveling with bodyguards, slipping through backwater villages and pine forests, and bankrolled by a secret network of supporters." But while many continue to revere him as a nationalist hero who defended the interests of his country in a difficult time, Fleishman says support "for the bushy-haired poet turned charismatic nationalist has become muted over the years as many Bosnian Serbs blame him for their economic and political turmoil. Time and poverty have diminished Serbian dreams of ethnic purity," and many now view him as "an unwanted relic from a painful era."

Paddy Ashdown, the international administrator for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has said there is a "sullen understanding" in Serbia that Karadzic's continuing freedom is undermining the country's chances to push ahead with economic reform or receive aid from the international community. NATO last month declined to invite Bosnia to join its Partnership for Peace program, largely because of a lack of progress on war crimes suspects. Last week, Ashdown sacked 59 government and security officials for their failure to take decisive steps to capture Karadzic and other wanted men.

This shift of mood in Bosnia would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, Fleishman says. But he says increasingly, Western officials hold out the hope that Karadzic's protection might soon wither away.


Writing from Kabul, author Christina Lamb describes the Afghan capital's soon-to-be-opened Peacock Lounge, a hotel and gambling center with a pool in the shape of a martini glass that is being funded by an Afghan-American entrepreneur. The "pink-and-gold colonnaded extravaganza" really grabs the attention "on a street in which families sleep in bombed-out houses with no roofs or windows and dusty-faced children walk to a well to collect water," she says.

Across town, Kabul's first cocktail bar, the British-run Elbow Room, and a Thai-run restaurant are both packed with customers every night.

Given these developments, Lamb says, former Taliban leader and hard-line Islamic conservative Mullah Omar would "have a fit," while others who may have once supported the ouster of his erstwhile regime might reasonably wonder "if an invasion of bars and restaurants for Westerners is really what it was for."

Lamb says, "Although aid workers, contractors and security consultants have every right to enjoy themselves, there is mounting resentment among ordinary Afghans, who feel the West has been busier opening drinking holes than rebuilding their nation."

She says Kabul has two distinct faces. There is a new boutique-hotel and a golf course in the capital. But at the same time, "the vast majority of Afghan women still wear burqas," and "[the] girls' soccer team at Zarghoona High School has to practice secretly."

"Instead of creating industry or regenerating agriculture under Western supervision, Afghanistan is producing record opium crops and is now responsible for a whopping 75 percent of the world supply," says Lamb. And the "shameful failure" of NATO member nations to provide sufficient troops and equipment means the alliance "has conspicuously failed to meet the pledge it made last year to expand outside Kabul."


A Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs, Sergei Blagov, says that following the seizure this week of Georgian peacekeepers by South Ossetian forces, "hopes are rapidly dying in Tbilisi and Moscow for a peaceful reconciliation over the status of the breakaway territory." The peacekeepers were released earlier today.

Also this week (7 July), Georgian troops stopped a Russian convoy allegedly bringing missiles into a Russian-patrolled zone of South Ossetia. The missiles were confiscated by the Georgians, and the rest of the trucks allowed to pass. But the Russian Defense Ministry nevertheless denounced the seizure as a "provocation," according to ITAR-TASS.

Blagov notes that these developments come less than a week after a summit between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin "that was heralded by both sides as a sign of the new understanding between Georgia and Russia."

Saakashvili's "sunny assessment" after the meeting that the two countries were moving toward a new period of "predictability and stability" in their relations may have been premature, Blagov suggests. "For now, Saakashvili appears to have settled for a cautious response to the crisis, promising to work with Russia on avoiding a reoccurrence of the arms incident, but emphasizing that Georgia would block any future weapons shipment into South Ossetia."

Blagov says Tbilisi maintaining "at least a modicum of cooperation with Moscow is essential to the resolution of two other outstanding [problems] of Georgian-Russian relations -- Abkhazia and the closure of two Russian military bases at Akhalkalaki and Batumi." But with "no breakthrough on either issue at the Moscow summit," Tbilisi "strained to highlight positive aspects of its ties with Russia."


Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, which should be recording $5 billion in profits this year, is instead on the brink of bankruptcy, the French daily says. And all of this comes at the will of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is waging a guerrilla war using judicial, financial and law enforcement means to attack Yukos's principle shareholder and former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

"Le Monde" says Putin is risking calling into question the steps his country is taking toward economic reform by seeking a guilty verdict for an oligarch who, without a doubt, is guilty of making his money in the questionable privatizations of the early 1990s. But the paper says Khodorkovskii is especially guilty of financing what little political opposition remains to challenge Putin.

In addition to the risk that the Yukos affair poses to the world price of oil, which is already unstable due to various crises in the Middle East, the bankruptcy of Russia's largest oil firm could ignite another Russian financial crisis.

That Putin wants to have a firm hand in the oil sector, which is the biggest source of revenue for the state, is logical and legitimate, the paper says. That he wants to call into question the shady privatizations following the collapse of communism is also justifiable.

But the pursuit of these goals cannot be arbitrary or involve the undermining of basic rights, such as the right to private property. The Yukos business is not isolated, says the paper. It goes hand in hand with a clampdown on the press, the undermining of political freedoms, and the refusal of a political compromise to the war in Chechnya.