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Western Press Review: German Elections, Afghanistan, And Central Asia's Relations With The West

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Several commentaries in the Western media today focus on the election campaign in Germany, which was launched with the choice of Edmund Stoiber to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the 22 September elections. Much discussion centers on the stagnant state of the German economy, seen as the pivotal issue in the election and Schroeder's greatest weakness. Other discussion centers on events in Afghanistan and the treatment of Afghan prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Other issues include relations between the West and Central Asia, and striking a cultural balance in Kazakhstan.


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Hans Barbier writes a resounding criticism of the economic policies of Germany's ruling government. As he puts it, "There is no sign that the governing coalition of [Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's] Social Democratic Party and Alliance 90/Green Party is capable of correctly diagnosing the causes of continuing unemployment and weak growth, and then countering them with suitable reform measures."

Barbier is particularly critical of what he calls the "miserable job situation" in Germany, with unemployment hovering close to 10 percent. Of one of the government's failed economic plans, the "Alliance for Work," Barbier says a plan "in which the trade unions veto even making a connection between wage policy, the economic situation and jobs should not [be] part of the institutional arrangements of economic policy."

Barbier continues: "Thousands of pages in reports and commentaries have been filled with alternative ideas in the areas of tax and social policy, in making employment more flexible, in deregulating and rigorously opening markets to more competition." But, he writes, "the chancellor lacks the courage," he writes. The current political-economic situation in Germany, he concludes, is characterized by "stagnation and bone-headedness."


In an analysis in the "International Herald Tribune," John Schmid says that the campaign heating up ahead of German elections has already "become a vote on [Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder's management of the world's third-biggest economy."

Schmid notes that Bavaria, the state governed by challenger Edmund Stoiber, "can lay claim to the nation's second-lowest unemployment rate." Stoiber hopes to capitalize on the idea that he can lower unemployment for the rest of the nation as well. Schmid observes that at the moment, Stoiber "has narrowly pulled ahead with a post-nomination bounce in some polls and runs neck-and-neck with Mr. Schroeder in most voter surveys."

Schmid continues: "At the heart of Mr. Stoiber's campaign is an overriding goal to diminish income taxes, welfare costs, and the overall size of the state." He adds that Stoiber's most concrete proposal involves "undoing measures taken by Mr. Schroeder at the behest of his trade union allies."

But Schmid goes on to say that "despite Mr. Stoiber's bold rhetoric, any predictions of massive change are probably exaggerated. Political analysts concur that neither he nor Mr. Schroeder, who both regard themselves as pragmatists and modernizers, can afford to do more than tinker with the revered Rhineland model of consensus capitalism."


An editorial in "The Economist" discusses the detainment of Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners at a U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The magazine says that the choice of this location was a key part of America's strategy of keeping these prisoners in what it calls "legal limbo." The weekly writes: "The unique attraction of Guantanamo Bay [is] the fact that it seems to lie beyond the jurisdiction of America's federal courts, or any other court system for that matter. This is a real cause for concern."

"The Economist" notes that the United States has a number of legal options at its disposal -- whether to try the prisoners before an international tribunal, in U.S. federal courts, by U.S. Army courts-martial or by special military tribunal. But the magazine says that the U.S. "must make a choice, explain its choice to allies and the American public, and then defend it against challenge. What it must not do is to make no choice at all, leaving the prisoners indefinitely beyond the reach of any legal regime. This would put America [itself] outside the law. It would also undermine its rightful claim to be fighting for justice and civilized values against a foe who respects neither."


In the German paper "Die Presse," political scientist Anton Pelinka reacts to a statement by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman that accuses the Austrian Freedom Party of being a "post-fascist" organization.

Zeman's statement was prompted by the launching of a referendum on the controversial Czech nuclear plant at Temelin, near the Austrian border, by Austria's far-right Freedom Party. The referendum is seeking to block Czech efforts to join the European Union unless the Russian-designed station is closed.

Pelinka says that Zeman is mistaken -- the Austrian party is not "post-fascist" but "post-Nazi." "In the thick forest of European 'post-isms,' the Austrian party takes its place next to the 'post-communists' and the 'post-fascists,'" he writes.

Pelinka goes on to say some comparisons with fascism can be drawn with the war history of Czechoslovakia, in the way wartime leaders treated the Jewish and Romany populations. But Pelinka maintains there is no parallel between fascism and national socialism and advises Zeman to take this into account -- and delve deeper into history -- before making such sweeping and simplistic statements.


An analysis in the French daily "Le Monde" by Bruno Philip says the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has largely been "an invisible conflict." He says special correspondents for the international press were invited in vain to view the American campaign in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan but were condemned to stand on the sidelines.

Often, says Philip, Afghan mujahedins -- acting on the orders of their American "friends" -- physically prevented reporters from advancing on certain areas. Philip says that a policy was at work in Afghanistan of "unacknowledged censorship." He says this situation is "grotesque, in a situation in which the number of deaths from the American bombing -- whether they are [Taliban] combatants or civil victims felled by mistaken strikes -- have still not been evaluated."

Philip suggests that it has been necessary to rely "on indirect sources or to decode dense language [that was] dictated by Washington strategists." He acknowledges that no war is easy to cover. But he says between "the impotence of an abundant media circus and the American obsession for leading anti-terrorist combat with the most obsessive secrecy, there is a feeling that the right to information has not truly been respected."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation looks at the shift in Central Asia's relations to the West in the wake of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

Socor says the war on terrorism "and the hard-won understanding of Central Asia's importance to Western [security], have turned the '-stans' from strategic backwaters into strategic prizes almost overnight. The twin factors of a Western stake and a Western presence [afford] these countries a unique chance to [develop] their vast untapped resources."

Socor says "successful wars by advanced nations" can often become the engines of progress. In Central Asia, "the anti-terror battle should prove to be the opening phase in a long-overdue modernization process. [The] economies of these countries -- with the partial exception of oil-wealthy Kazakhstan -- are clearly unable to recover unaided from their Soviet and post-Soviet distress," he says.

"The relationship now developing between the West and the '-stans' is historically unprecedented and faces some daunting obstacles," says Socor. These include what he calls "the stifling legacy of oriental despotism, the after-effects of Russian colonialism and the social destruction inflicted by Soviet socialism."

It also remains to be seen whether "the reservoirs of goodwill" will outweigh the "mutual incomprehension between Western democracies and Central Asian countries with an absolute lack of democratic traditions."


In an analysis in "Eurasia View," Taras Kuzio of the Center for Russia and East European Studies at the University of Toronto discusses the state-building dilemmas faced by Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states in the post Soviet-era.

He says throughout region, the Soviet era was characterized by "a colonial attitude, secularization, Russification and the establishment of artificial borders that left ethnic groups divided. At the same time, Russian-speaking migrants [rarely] mixed with indigenous peoples.... [Even] today, Russian speakers tend to identify more with the Soviet Union than with the newly independent Central Asian republics."

In Kazakhstan, Kuzio says, the Soviet cultural legacy "is particularly evident because the titular nation was divided by language and by region."

Kuzio says since the Soviet collapse, re-establishing the language of the titular nation has been a key element of state-building. But reasserting Kazakh has proven to be particularly complicated, as two-thirds of Kazakhs use Russian as their first language. In addition, he says, Kazakh suffers from a lack of prestige. "Many continue to see knowledge of Russian as being essential for higher education and for lucrative economic opportunities," he writes.

Kuzio notes that in order to strengthen Kazakhstan's state identity, the capital city was moved from Almaty, which had a vast Russia majority, to Astana. Another aspect of Kazakh state-building has been the policy of renaming places, rejecting the Soviet-era Russian transliteration of names in favor of the original Kazakh spellings.


In Britain's "The Guardian," columnist Simon Tisdall says that as the United States seeks to expand the aims of its campaign against terrorism, it is in danger of obscuring its quest for justice.

Tisdall says, "Reports that planning for U.S.-led military action in Somalia has reached an advanced stage raise the question of what proof the Americans have obtained concerning the activities [of] Al-Qaeda [in] the country. If Washington has any, it has not shared it so far."

He says that while it seems unlikely that Washington will escalate the conflict in "such a dramatic and dangerous fashion" as to go after Iraq, this fact has "simultaneously increased suspicions that the U.S. will prefer to pick on easy targets such as Somali warlords or Yemeni desert renegades."

Tisdall says "the bottom line in the 'war on terrorism' is that, despite its undoubted successes in Afghanistan, the U.S. and backers such as Britain have failed -- so far -- in their main objectives of killing or capturing those principally responsible for the September 11 atrocities."

Tisdall writes: "As the overall direction of the 'war on terrorism' wavers and becomes blurred, as its aims expand and multiply, and as its possible or likely targets become ever more diffuse and controversial, this central, overriding quest for justice is in danger of being obscured."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)