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Western Press Review: Influence And Independence In The Caucasus, Klebnikov's Killing, And U.S. Unilateralism

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 13 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press coverage today begins with a closer look at the standoff over Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, as Moscow and Tbilisi try to reach an understanding over the region's separatist aims. President Mikheil Saakashvili has pledged to reassert Georgian control over the province, while Moscow has traditionally backed its bid for increased autonomy. Another issue under scrutiny in the region is the 9 July slaying of Paul Klebnikov, the editor of "Forbes" magazine's Russian edition. Klebnikov was gunned down on 9 July by an unknown assailant as he left his office. His killing comes after a succession of official Kremlin crackdowns on the media, and many observers are wondering whether his death is yet another indication that the rule of law and civil society remains tenuous in today's Russia. Other topics today include the trial of former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and how the U.S. administration is adopting a more multilateral approach to its foreign policy.


"South Ossetia is once again a conflict zone after 12 years of peace," says a contribution by independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. Georgia's breakaway region fought a 1991-92 war for independence that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire agreement.

In the years following the conflict, authorities in Tbilisi did not enforce custom regulations along the cease-fire line with South Ossetia because they did not recognize it as an official border. Tbilisi has long maintained that the autonomous republic will one day come back under central Georgian control.

Felgenhauer says, "During the corrupt rule of Eduard Shevardnadze from 1992 to 2003 no political solution to the Ossetian problem was found, but peace reigned because of the trade in contraband that enriched all involved."

But all this changed when Shevardnadze was toppled last November. His replacement, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, stationed customs officials along the cease-fire line. "The traffickers reacted violently," Felgenhauer says. And the end of contraband trafficking also undermined the South Ossetian regime. The leadership began fomenting tensions in the region, apparently believing that if violence were to break out, Moscow would intervene on the side of Ossetia against Georgia.

"But Ossetia is not high on the Kremlin's list of priorities these days," Felgenhauer says. "The plot to strip oil major Yukos of its assets and to redistribute Russia's oil and gas revenue generally is far more important." Moreover, some have pointed out that the Kremlin's support for South Ossetia's independence aspirations undermines its attempts to squelch separatism in Chechnya.

It is hard to tell what Moscow will do next, but Felgenhauer says one thing is clear: The Kremlin "will do its level best to avoid an armed conflict in South Ossetia. And in the end this may entail tacitly helping Saakashvili to establish control in the region."


CIS political affairs analyst Igor Torbakov says some Russian policymakers are pushing to establish Moscow as "the guarantor of peace and stability" in the Caucasus. This new push is largely due to the realization that Western powers are showing increasing interest in the region. But rather than trying to reassert Soviet-style dominance over its neighboring republics, the Kremlin looks set to "favor a policy that looks on Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia as sovereign neighbors and potential partners and allies."

"Given Russia's own status as a former Soviet republic trying to identify its national mission, the argument goes, it is better equipped than NATO or the European Union to understand the needs of newly formed countries in the Caucasus and throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States."

Torbakov says, to reinforce this link, some Russian analysts have emphasized that countries in the Caucasus "will not be likely candidates for EU or NATO membership for at least two more generations." Others argue that NATO failed to meet the challenge of ensuring peace in Afghanistan and Iraq -- so the CIS countries should "pay little heed to the alliance's overtures to secure peace and security."

Torbakov says, "How events will unfold in response to the recent crisis over South Ossetia will present a critical test for this new policy, however."

But despite Moscow's attempt to reengage the CIS countries, the Kremlin's moves in the region are largely predicated on its relations with the United States rather than with the CIS countries themselves.

"So far, in the opinion of most Russian analysts, the Kremlin has come out as the loser in the struggle with the U.S. for dominance in the Caucasus and beyond," Torbakov says. "With Georgia's recent announcement that it expects to join NATO within four years, it is a game of geopolitical chess that Russia is increasingly determined to win."


Michael Caputo, a former election adviser to the Boris Yeltsin administration, says the killing of "Forbes" Moscow editor Paul Klebnikov brings a certain clarity. "Nothing has changed," he says. "Brutal criminals still run amok in Russia, operating with impunity and no fear of prosecution."

Klebnikov "had high hopes for Russia and was determined to urge democracy along." As a journalist, he was "the real deal." Klebnikov "listened as intently to the griping of a pensioner as he did to the drone of politicians. He was quick to the point, wasted no time, and drove to the center of his story." And although based in New York throughout the first post-Soviet period of the 1990s, Klebnikov "had more contacts in Moscow than most reporters on the ground full time."

His investigations focusing on Russian industrialists like Boris Berezovskii "were always fair and thorough," Caputo says, but they "didn't make [Klebnikov] many friends in the country."

"Russia hasn't changed in the past decade and at this trajectory it won't be truly civilized for generations," Caputo writes. "Those who killed Klebnikov are killing today, plan to kill tomorrow, and know they'll roam free to kill for years to come. Hellbent on getting rich, they have no boundaries. Raised in a communist world devoid of morals, they have no soul."

Caputo says, "There is no valid reason why a nation so tolerant -- even complicit -- in organized crime should stand on par with world leaders in groups such as the World Trade Organization." He says the U.S. administration "must demand results in this murder investigation and require the assassins and their bosses be detected, arrested, tried and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

"Or will it let Paul Klebnikov [be] just another footnote in Russia's disingenuous flirtation with world-class rule of law?"


The paper discusses the "grim reality" documented by the 2004 United Nations Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic. "More than 20 years after it began, the global AIDS epidemic keeps outpacing efforts to contain it, like a puzzle forever growing in size and complexity," the paper says. Efforts to fight the disease are expanding, but the worldwide rate of infection is increasing even more quickly.

The paper says prevention efforts "should be developed on the basis of science and effectiveness." Uganda, which the paper says is one of the most successful countries in its fight against AIDS, promotes a program combining sexual abstinence, being faithful to one partner, and using condoms to prevent the spread of the disease –- the so-called "ABCs" of AIDS prevention. Thailand, which has also met with some success in combating the disease, encourages prevention almost exclusively through the use of condoms.

But prevention efforts and treatment "must reach everyone at risk," the paper says. "There is evidence in many countries, including Russia and India, of widespread discrimination in treatment against intravenous drug users and homosexuals, even though in many cases they are the most likely to be affected by HIV."

The paper writes that the UN "will keep publishing its dismal reports on the progress of the AIDS epidemic, presumably until the world starts listening to them. The solution to the tragic AIDS puzzle won't come quickly or cheaply."


An editorial says as the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic resumes tomorrow, "Get ready for more blustery grandstanding as the former strongman, who started four Balkan wars for Serbian dominance, begins the defense phase in proceedings that already have dragged on for more than two years."

The paper notes that Milosevic "plans to call more than 1,600 witnesses, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and [former U.S. President] Bill Clinton. He wants to focus attention on what NATO bombing did to Serbs, not the 66 counts he faces relating to war crimes."

But the world should keep a close eye on The Hague's judges, the paper says, as the international court faces a critical test. The trial has been postponed due to the former Yugoslav leader's failing health. And last week, Milosevic was told that if he was too ill to conduct his own defense, the court would appoint counsel for him.

"Faced with that prospect, Milosevic may try to convince the judges he is too ill to stand trial at all," says the editorial. "While records and examinations indicate he has serious health problems, he does not appear incapacitated. The judges should not be duped, and they should not hesitate to appoint a defense lawyer if one is needed."


"When is the last time you heard Donald Rumsfeld insult an ally?" columnist H.D.S. Greenway asks rhetorically. The U.S. defense secretary "used to insult an ally a week." In the run-up to the Iraq war especially, those from Rumsfeld's inner circle at the Pentagon "had nothing but contempt for the un-warlike Europeans" across the Atlantic.

"But in recent months Rumsfeld has become strangely quiet," says Greenway. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "never admits it has made a mistake," but its shifts in policy can be detected by more subtle signals -- and a silenced Rumsfeld might be telling us something.

"The fact is that Bush needs allies now. Iraq has gone so badly that the old go-it-alone neoconservatives have had to take a back seat, and the Bush forces are out courting countries it formerly disdained."

Last month, Bush "traveled from Washington no less than four times to meet with and to soothe ruffled allies. He went from the beaches of Normandy, where the 60th anniversary of D-Day was being celebrated, to the G-8 summit meeting in Georgia, to Ireland for a European Union meeting and lastly to Istanbul for a NATO summit meeting."

As a result of his efforts, Bush can now "claim a UN endorsement for the U.S. presence in Iraq and a NATO commitment to train some Iraqis, but it was clear that the rift between allies has not completely healed. NATO's role in Iraq will be mostly symbolic."

But better relations had better be in the pipeline, Greenway says. "The United States cannot, and never could, go it alone and have any chance of prevailing against terrorism. It is a pity the Bush administration could not have come to that conclusion earlier, before so much damage was done."