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Western Press Review: TV-6 Shutdown, Afghan Aid, And U.S.-Uzbek Relations

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Several commentaries in today's Western press discuss the closure yesterday of Russia's last private nationwide television station, TV-6. The station's demise leaves Russians with no alternative to state-controlled television and has many free-press and civil rights advocates criticizing the move. Other issues include U.S.-Uzbek relations, the challenges facing Afghanistan's central government, and the Afghan donors conference in Tokyo that ended yesterday with pledges of $4.5 billion to help rebuild the war-torn nation.


In "The Washington Post," Masha Lipman, a regular contributor and deputy editor of a Russian newsmagazine financed by media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, looks at yesterday's closure of Russia's last private television station, TV-6. She notes that the move came nine months after the crackdown on Russia's largest private communications group, Media-Most. Lipman says that both operations "were aimed at getting rid of defiant media tycoons: Vladimir Gusinsky, the former owner of Media-Most, and Boris Berezovsky, major shareholder of TV-6. The Kremlin regarded them as political rivals equipped with dangerous weapons. It was aided by public dislike of both media moguls, who are seen as self-seeking fat cats."

But, Lipman continues, the bottom line is that in Russia today, "all national television broadcasting is either fully controlled by the Kremlin or constrained by self-censorship." She notes that while public outcry accompanied NTV's closure, there is already "no such passion" regarding the demise of TV-6. Some voices were raised in protest, but all in all, the public "clearly is not interested." Lipman concludes that the Russian public "does not see the TV-6 drama as having anything to do with its rights and freedoms. This was what made the Kremlin victory so easy." She concludes: "This public indifference, combined with high approval ratings for the political [leadership], will make further subjugation of the media easy for the government."


An editorial in "The New York Times" also looks at the TV-6 closure, noting that station owner Boris Berezovsky was a "forceful and unrelenting critic of President Vladimir Putin." The editorial says that the obscure law used to shut down the station, which forces liquidation on a company for failing to turn a profit, was "so misconceived" that the Russian parliament repealed it as of 1 January. But a higher arbitration court "simply ignored the repeal, and with unusual speed for such matters, shut down TV-6."

The editorial says that without a network independent of the government, "Russians around the country have access to only three major networks, all controlled in various ways by the state. The closing of TV-6 sends a message to other journalists at every level: criticizing the Kremlin can be bad for business, [and] even worse for journalism."

The paper goes on to suggest that U.S. President George W. Bush should raise these and other free-press issues with President Putin when he travels to Moscow in the spring. "Sustaining a media free to criticize those in power is essential to Russia's political, judicial and economic development."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" also weighs in on TV-6 and describes the law used to close down the station as "antiquated." It notes that President Putin criticized media moguls Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky as defending "not freedom of speech, but their own commercial interests."

The paper writes: "It is unfortunate that the reputation the Russian oligarchs have earned has deprived the independent media of some of the respect it might otherwise have garnered from the Russian public. But the only way to rid Russia of rent-seeking oligarchs is to create a law-based level playing field."

The paper suggests applying free-market principles to the issue of press freedom, by allowing for competition and diversity and then letting Russian consumers decide according to which station "provided the most compelling content." But, the paper says, "instead of moving toward greater diversity, Russia is slipping back toward the centralization of political power that media control affords. It has, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, only state-dominated television; and press czar [Mikhail] Lesin -- the man who claimed the media is a bigger threat to the state than the state to the media -- is lord over it all."


In the German "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," commentator Berthold Kohler looks at the ongoing controversy over the Czech Republic's nuclear power plant at Temelin, located near the Austrian border. Safety concerns over the Soviet-era plant, which has been updated with Western technology, have allowed the Austrian Freedom Party of Joerg Haider to call for a referendum threatening to block Czech accession to the EU if the plant is not shut down. But columnist Kohler says Haider is actually seeking to win more votes for his far-right Freedom Party by stirring up fears of competition from the East following enlargement.

Kohler writes: "Haider now claims to have mobilized 1 million Austrians. Yet that still fails to bring the Freedom Party's eminence grise any closer to shutting down [Temelin], or to his real objective of hindering the European Union's Eastward enlargement." Kohler adds that the Freedom Party's national coalition partner -- the Austrian People's Party led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel -- "will not be persuaded to change its pro-EU and pro-enlargement course."

But Kohler says the debate on EU enlargement has caused old fears and conflicts to resurface. "To count on these to resolve themselves on their own within a united Europe is a risky proposition," Kohler writes. "After all, that entails leaving them to the tender mercies of the populists in the meantime."


A commentary in Britain's "Financial Times" says it takes "a heroic leap of faith" to believe that Afghanistan's warlords and power brokers will be "more interested in their country's good than their own self-interest." But the paper also says that the speed of developments on the ground in Afghanistan and the intensity of international attention "have created the momentum for positive change." The editorial remarks that, so far, Afghans led by the interim government of Hamid Karzai "have responded with enterprise and courage."

The paper writes: "It is now vital that the donors deliver on their promises. The money pledged in the early years -- [$1.8 billion] in year one -- is probably as much as Afghanistan can absorb." It says that "stabilizing the currency, training an effective police force, de-mining the countryside and drastically lifting the primary school enrollment rate for girls from 3 percent would be fine goals to strive for from the start."

The next danger for Afghanistan, the editorial says, will come if or when momentum is lost. It warns: "The world must maintain a commitment to Afghanistan even when the country's plight has slipped off the front pages."


A Stratfor commentary discusses a fresh outbreak of fighting in Afghanistan on 20-21 January in the Qala Zaal area, west of Kondoz. Stratfor says this newest skirmish between Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum's forces and ethnic Tajik fighters "highlights the continued ineffectiveness of Afghanistan's central government" under Hamid Karzai. Stratfor suggests that the groups represented in the new interim government "will attempt to keep a lid on ethnic infighting only long enough to receive Western aid," while those factions outside the government "are motivated to cause its collapse." But Stratfor says all groups likely realize the benefits of keeping open warfare to a minimum in order to receive financial assistance from the international community.

The commentary goes on to say that the authority of Karzai's central government "does not extend much past Kabul." Outside the capital, it says, ethnic warlords continue their attempts to divide up the country. Stratfor writes: "The only lever Karzai's interim government has is its ability to distribute aid money. But Karzai is in a difficult position. If he gives out money too freely, the warlords will not need him. If he holds the aid close, the warlords will figure that they'll never get the cash, so there is no use behaving." Either way, Stratfor says, "he faces an increasingly volatile situation."


An analysis in "Eurasia View" says that, despite Uzbekistan's newfound strategic importance to the U.S. since the launch of the Afghanistan campaign, "no concrete framework for future U.S.-Uzbek relations can be discerned." The analysis says the only thing that seems certain is that the U.S. "is interested in establishing a long-term presence in Uzbekistan."

"Eurasia View" notes that U.S.-Uzbek economic and political relations are dependent on Uzbekistan pursuing reform. But it says: "[T]he commitment of the Uzbek government to reform seems uncertain. There are neither concrete plans nor any clear indicators that large-scale changes will come anytime soon, despite the plethora of visiting U.S. officials."

The analysis says skepticism concerning reform currently surrounds an upcoming referendum, which will seek public approval for the extension of President Islam Karimov's term from five to seven years. "Eurasia View" writes that Karimov "has exhibited growing authoritarian tendencies over the years" and that the conduct of the 2000 presidential election came under intense international criticism. But since Central Asia's shift in geopolitical importance, it says, the U.S. "has refrained from commenting on the Uzbek referendum." It also says some observers are concerned that U.S. officials "will not follow up on their statements linking improvements in the human rights climate with economic assistance. They also worry that the high-profile visits by U.S. political leaders will bolster Karimov's authority, and diminish the Uzbek leader's desire to implement reforms."


A commentary in the Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" deals with Bosnia's position, made likely yesterday, as a new member of the Council of Europe. The paper says, "Although the country is still suffering from enormous problems connected with the cohabitation of three different ethnic groups and has a long way to go in adhering to human rights, the Council [of Europe] seems to be convinced that the political leadership is intent on pursuing democratic reforms and introducing a rule of law whose practical outcome will be in tune with the norms of the European authority."

Council members supporting Bosnia's membership, which will entitle the nation to five seats in the assembly as of April, are convinced that Bosnia's membership will serve to protect minorities. The commentary quotes Austrian council member Wolfgang Petritsch, the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who says the country needs membership in order to advance the latest positive trends in its development. He says nationalism has been successfully suppressed, and although there may be a relapse, an outright revival is unlikely.


In France's daily "Liberation," Alexandra Schwartzbrod writes from Jerusalem on the Israeli army's incursion yesterday into the Palestinian-controlled town of Nablus, killing four members of Hamas during the operation. A few hours later, writes Schwartzbrod, Hamas declared "an all-out war" on Israel.

Schwartzbrod says that "international diplomacy seems quite powerless to bring the two sides back to reason." Since the interception of a boat laden with weapons intended for the Palestinian Authority, she says the U.S. seems increasingly willing to withhold its support from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But this stance, she says, is like giving Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "carte blanche."

At the same time, Schwartzbrod says, the Europeans "hopelessly try to find a way out of this dead end." She cites EU envoy to the Middle East Miguel Angel Moratinos as saying that security is impossible to ensure without a political agreement, and an agreement will never be possible if security is not guaranteed. Thus, Schwartzbrod says, the Europeans would like to begin work on these two parallel tracks "in order to avoid a flashover which would be as dangerous for the Israelis as it would for the Palestinians."

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