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Western Press Review: Uncertainty Prevails In Caspian, Belarusian And Baltic Affairs

By Lisa Kammerud/Dora Slaba/Don Hill

Prague, 8 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Today Western press commentary runs a gamut, covering development of Caspian Sea resources, the death of Nigeria's most prominent political prisoner, and Estonian and Belarusian relations with Russia.

FINANCIAL TIMES: The deal is a first step towards a pragmatic resolution

An editorial in the Financial Times, London, says that a deal between Russia and Kazakhstan on Caspian Sea resource-sharing is an important first step. The newspaper says: "The deal between Russia and Kazakhstan on how to divide their respective claims to the seabed of the northern Caspian marks a vital step towards exploration of the world's most promising undeveloped oil field. It also represents a belated but welcome recognition by Moscow of commercial reality and self-interest.

"After years of prevarication, and attempts to bully its former Soviet outpost into accepting Russian control of its future oil industry, Boris Yeltsin's government has accepted that the Caspian should be treated as a sea, not a lake. That amounts to recognition of Kazakhstan's claim to its own offshore oil resources rather than an insistence that all littoral states should share the resources equally."

The editorial Continues: "The agreement is not guarantee that Moscow will not try to use its political muscle again: other issues, such as the vital question of pipelines, will be subject to further negotiation. But it is a first step towards pragmatic resolution of the battle to control the Caspian's undoubted oil wealth."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The agreement means a backing down from the long-held Moscow stand

An editorial in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung agrees the deal represents a concession by Moscow, but says the deal may still leave ambiguities about the Caspian. The editorial says: "(It) is still not clear whether the agreement has settled the question of the status of the Caspian Sea -- inland waters or sea. Undoubtedly though it means a backing down from the long-held Moscow stand that the Caspian Sea should be commonly used by several states."

IRISH TIMES: Abiola's significance for Nigerian democracy will be sanctified by his death

Commentator Paddy Woodworth writes in today's Irish Times that the timing of imprisoned politician Mashood Abiola's death in Nigeria could have dire consequences for the rulers of the country. Woodworth writes: "The sudden death in custody of Nigeria's leading opposition politician, Chief Mashood Abiola, just before his widely anticipated release, could not have come at a worse time for the military dictatorship which had imprisoned him. The regime was in the throes of trying to convince a skeptical world that it was about to democratize itself, in the hope of getting U.S. and European sanctions on Africa's most populous country lifted. Only days ago the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was told that it would release all political prisoners, and 30 were already free."

The commentary continues: "Mr. Abiola was the only Nigerian leader who could claim a popular mandate to lead the country, since he was clearly the front runner in the 1993 presidential election. (But) if his significance for Nigerian democracy has been exaggerated, it was symbolically magnified by his five years in prison, and will be sanctified by his death."

WASHINGTON POST: Abiola opted for principle

The Washington Post agrees in an editorial today that the timing of Abiola's death was inopportune for Nigeria's regime. The Post says that Abiola "had become a symbol of Nigeria's struggle for democracy." The editorial says: "He was not your typical dissident. After a childhood of deprivation, Mr. Abiola became a multimillionaire, at least in part through close ties to the military dictators who have misruled his homeland throughout most of its independence. But when the moment of reckoning came, Mr. Abiola opted for principle -- and yesterday both he and his country paid the price. Mr. Abiola's death at age 60 is another setback for Africa's most populous, and one of its most troubled, nations, just as they both seemed on the verge of a possible transition to better times."

The editorial concludes: "The proper response from (Nigerian leader General Abdulsalam) Abubakar is clear. He should free all remaining political prisoners without condition, unshackle Nigeria's press and political parties and allow an early and fair election."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: The West must be careful not to isolate Belarus

An editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says the West must be careful not to push Belarus closer to Russia. The newspaper says: "There is one thing the West must not do: isolate Belarus. This warning comes from Ukrainian President (Leonid) Kuchma, who wants to preserve his neighbor country as an independent state and would not want it to return to the great Russian embrace. This, however, can only be hindered by Belarus itself, at whose helm stands a man who is holding to the reigns of power and seems to be involved (seriously in the) reunification of Belarus with Russia to become the highest ranking man in the Moscow Kremlin."

The editorial concludes: "The Belarus opposition is coming to feel this as much as the countries in the West, which have remained hostile as far as (Belarusian President Alyaksandr) Lukashenka is concerned. (Belarus), which suffered more than any other Soviet Republic during World War Two and later as a result of the Chornobyl catastrophe, deserved a different President."

DIE WELT: Estonian politicians are worried about growing Russian pressure

A commentary in the German newspaper, Die Welt, by Carl Gustaf Stroehm says the Baltics and Estonia in particular, may be in danger of being pushed by the West towards Russia. Stroehm writes: "How far can the Baltic states, independent again since 1991, rely on their friends in the West. And do Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have friends in Western governments and public life -- people and institutions interested in what happens to them?"

The writer says: "Probably unintentionally, but with psychological consequences that must not be underestimated, the German airline Lufthansa (has) canceled all scheduled flights to Tallinn. (This) downgrading of links, albeit just transport links, took place at a time when Estonian politicians were worried about growing Russian pressure on the Baltic states and Estonian public opinion is showing signs of a strangely ambivalent mood."