By Daisy Sindelar/Khatya Chhor
Prague, 14 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western newspapers today focus their comments on last week's conference in Bratislava on the efforts of nine Eastern and Central European nations to gain membership in NATO. Czech President Vaclav Havel, who spoke at the meeting, urged NATO members not to placate Russia by denying membership to Western-oriented candidate countries. Analysts alternately urge action and prudence in approaching the expansion process. Many Western papers also look at the early results of yesterday's elections in Italy, in which conservative media magnate Silvio Berlusconi appears headed for victory.
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
"The Wall Street Journal Europe" today excerpts remarks made by Czech President Vaclav Havel at last week's Bratislava conference on NATO expansion. Writing on the bid by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to join the military alliance, Havel says: "I find it almost absurd that such a large and powerful country [as Russia] should be alarmed by the prospect of three small democratic republics at its borders joining a regional grouping that it does not control."
Havel notes that despite what he calls Russia's "remarkable progress" toward democracy and a market economy, "[it] is somehow still grappling with a problem with which, to my knowledge, it has grappled with for more or less its entire history, that is, with the question of where it begins and where it ends, what belongs to its domain and what is already beyond it, where it should exercise its decisive influence and from what point onward it cannot do so."
He continues: "The Baltic states make it clear that -- not only geographically, but also through their history and culture -- they consider themselves to be part of the West and, therefore, have an eminent interest in joining NATO. [Yielding] to some geopolitical or geostrategic interest of Russia, or perhaps merely to its concern for its prestige, would be the worst thing that the Alliance could do in this respect."
Moreover, Havel adds: "Refusal to invite these states out of consideration for the feelings or the strategic thoughts of the Kremlin would ultimately amount to admitting that Russia's fears of NATO's expanding to the three Baltic states are justified and that NATO really harbors aggressive or imperialist anti-Russian intentions."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
Also in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," an editorial expands up the same theme, asking: "What right does Russia have to veto admission of its neighboring countries into [NATO]? Why are the sensitivities of a people who oppressed millions now treated so tenderly in the West?" The paper goes on to blame "Russophiles" in the Clinton administration for creating that "conventional wisdom." It says: "Appeasement of Russia was the centerpiece of Clinton foreign policy and thus became a guidepost for NATO as well. [Billions] of dollars were funneled into Moscow, only to disappear down black holes."
Now, the paper writes, "several West European countries, led by Germany, have been lukewarm to the idea of granting membership to those countries closest to Russia, especially the three Baltic countries. [U.S. President] George W. Bush needs to be heard from now. Several of the leaders [from candidate countries said] what's needed now is for Mr. Bush to make a statement of support for their candidacy. After that, they believe the West European members of NATO will fall into line."
It adds: "The U.S. president will have an opportunity during his tour of Europe next month. Mr. Bush is preparing to make an important speech on this issue at Warsaw, and now Mr. Havel, [in his remarks], has laid down the standard by which Mr. Bush's own oration will be measured."
Also on the subject of NATO enlargement, an editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" notes that it is possible that no invitations will be issued at next year's NATO summit in Prague. The paper writes: "There is little appetite among alliance members for increased spending to meet extended defense obligations. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, which joined in 1999, have not done enough to upgrade their armed forces. Those of the [nine Eastern European] applicant countries are in a worse state."
Should the alliance opt for expansion, the paper adds, "broader issues must also be taken into account" -- first and foremost what it calls the "inexplicit" link between NATO and EU enlargement. It writes: "The rapid accession of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to the EU could assuage those countries' security concerns by offering political and economic solidarity. Conversely, Romania, which has a long way to go to meet EU norms, could benefit from earlier membership [in] NATO."
Russia's concerns over enlargement, it adds, "must be considered. [A] hostile Russia, provoked by the arrival of NATO at its doorstep, would undermine Europe's security." Finally, the paper says that other security developments outside of NATO cannot be ignored: "Missile defense, the EU's emerging defense identity, and the prospects for further arms control and non-proliferation agreements will all have a bearing [on NATO enlargement.]"
Looking ahead to a U.S.-Russian presidential summit -- which could occur as early as mid-June, when Bush pays his first official visit to Europe -- Jim Hoagland notes in a commentary for "The Washington Post" (published in today's "International Herald Ttibune") that after four months of rebuffing Vladimir Putin's appeals for a meeting, the U.S. president has set the stage "for a brief Russian-American summit that will essentially be conducted on Bush's terms." He writes: "Bush's 1 May statement on nuclear strategy, which underlined his determination to build a comprehensive missile defense, [elicited] an essentially positive public response from Putin -- leaving both Bush's domestic critics and European allies who have been critical of missile defense dangling from a limb."
He continues: "Bush diplomacy -- under assault on a number of fronts recently as an oxymoron -- has actually been effective in pursuing a new framework for relations with a diminished but still important Russia. [The president] appears to have decided to avoid, at least for now, the furor that a formal renunciation of the 1972 [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty] would bring."
Instead, Hoagland writes, "he will walk away from it a step at a time. As research and development brushes up against the treaty's limitations, Putin will be forced into a trifecta of choices: cooperate, noisily complain but stop short of a formal challenge, or invalidate the accord on the grounds of U.S. violations."
Two comments in France's "Le Monde" look at Italy's parliamentary elections yesterday and the likely victory of conservative candidate Silvio Berlusconi. Francois Loncle, the Socialist president of the French National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, says that Berlusconi and his right-leaning coalition are a menace to Italy as well as to Europe. He writes: "Berlusconi does not debate. He insults, he injures, he uses invective. [He] does not hesitate to accuse the Constitutional Court of being 'in the hands of the left.'"
Berlusconi, Loncle continues, "does not involve himself with politics so much as with publicity. He does not consider Italians as citizens, rather as consumers. Quoting former European Commission President Jacques Delors -- also a Socialist -- Loncle writes: "'The entrance of a xenophobic and anti-immigrant movement into the government of as large a country as Italy will represent a real danger for Europe.'" He also quotes Belgian's Socialist Foreign Minister Louis Michel as saying: "'We cannot rest as spectators to the arrival of an extreme-right party in the Italian government.'"
Also in "Le Monde," editor Daniel Vernet argues that Berlusconi's rise to the post of prime minister could act as a cure for Italy's faltering populist movement. Of the center-left parties, he writes: "After having a half-century in the opposition, the ex-communists and their allies are well acquainted with the wearying effects of [being in] power." Now, he writes, "Berlusconi and the 'House of Freedom' [have] announced their victory over the 'reds,' [calling it] 'a triumph of democracy.'"
Berlusconi's probable victory, Vernet writes, "is undoubtedly the most significant setback for [Western Europe's] center-left in the past five years. [It has already] allowed the victory of a disparate coalition composed of elements that, as we have seen in [Jorg Haider's] Austria for little more than a year now, [can] provoke the indignation of European leaders." Can populism's sickness be cured, Vernet asks? As an answer, he quotes the well-known Italian journalist Indro Montanelli as saying: "A good dose of the Berlusconi vaccine may, in fact, enable its recovery'"
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
A comment in the "International Herald Tribune" looks at the deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Cesar Chelala, an international medical consultant, writes: "It is easy to feel antagonistic toward the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan. [The] world's disapprobation, however, has not changed Afghanistan's policies in the slightest. If anything, the country's leaders have become more adamant about following their own dictates no matter what the cost."
The UN sanctions leveled against the Taliban in December, he says, have not helped. He writes: "The Food and Agriculture Organization has declared that Afghanistan is one of the three hungriest countries in the world -- it is estimated that 70 percent of Afghans are undernourished. In addition, the worst drought in memory has driven 700,000 people from their homes, leading to food shortages affecting almost 4 million people."
He adds: "The Taliban regime, brutal as it is in our eyes, is nonetheless the key player in Afghanistan. It is time [for the West] to rethink the blind and antagonistic approach based on sanctions [and] try to negotiate some basic agreements that would end Afghanistan's isolation."
NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" today calls for the United States to contribute more funding to combat the global AIDS crisis. Citing President Bush, who said "the sheer number of those affected and dying is almost beyond comprehension," the paper goes on to say: "These powerful words came with a promise of only $200 million. As the development group Oxfam put it, Mr. Bush left off a zero."
The paper continues: "The world is beginning to treat the AIDS crisis as the emergency it is. Prices of drugs have plummeted. African nations, which are most ravaged by AIDS, are demonstrating a welcome new seriousness in their approach to the disease."
Even so, the paper notes that "an effective worldwide program of AIDS prevention and treatment requires [billions] more than the world's current spending of $1 billion a year. [UN] Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked for an additional $7 billion to $10 billion yearly for the AIDS fund, and more will be needed once programs are in place." Former President Bill Clinton, the paper adds, "has suggested that Washington contribute a quarter of Mr. Annan's request."