Prague, 25 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western media today considers NATO membership for the Nordic states, German-Czech relations, European Union expansion, human rights abuses in Chechnya, and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Commentators also continue to discuss the controversial treatment of suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners at a U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Risto Penttila of the Oxford Analytica international affairs consulting firm says the likely membership of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in NATO is forcing Finland and Sweden to reconsider their long-standing commitment to military nonalignment.
He says most Finnish experts privately admit that if the Baltic states join NATO, Finland will most likely have to follow suit -- although neither President Tarja Halonen nor the Finnish public currently support this option. But Penttila cites analysts as saying a turnaround in public opinion regarding NATO membership could be achieved if the foreign policy leadership began moving the country in that direction. For now, Finland maintains "a very high degree of interoperability" with the NATO alliance.
As for Sweden, Penttila says its longtime neutrality, which began in the 19th century as a way of staying out of wars, is one obstacle to NATO membership. "If Baltic membership leads to heightened tension in the region, there will be a new resolve to continue military nonalignment in Stockholm," says Penttila.
He concludes: "It is extremely unlikely that Sweden or Finland will change their policy of military nonalignment before the Baltic states are safely inside the alliance. But if the Baltic states join NATO without any deterioration in Russian-Western relations, it will be hard for anyone in Stockholm or Helsinki to find a reason not to join."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," commentator Berthold Kohler looks at the controversial Benes Decrees, the Czech documents allowing for the expulsion of Sudetenland Germans from Czech territory following World War II.
Five years ago -- after lengthy negotiations -- Prague and Berlin signed a "Declaration of Reconciliation," stating that they no longer wanted their relations to be burdened by mutual wrongs of the past. But Kohler says recent statements by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, calling the Sudeten Germans "traitors" to the Czech Republic, have renewed tensions. Kohler calls Zeman's statements an "unconcealed justification of ethnic cleansing" and says they have "raised questions about the political culture of a country that wants to join the European Union."
Kohler says "a majority of Czechs continue to think the expulsion was just, or at least not an injustice." He says the Czech Republic inaccurately claimed that the Benes Decrees had expired in an attempt to pacify Berlin. But Kohler says the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights then discovered the decrees "were not defunct at all, but just as integral a part of Czech law as they always were."
Kohler says "no one wants EU enlargement to be derailed by the unresolved problems of the past." But he remarks that one can "only wonder at the 'shared values' the EU will be adopting if it admits the Czech Republic with the Benes Decrees still on its statute books."
Daniel Broessler, writing today in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," titles his commentary on the European Union "United in Strife." The year began under the sign of the euro, and it could end with the inclusion of 14 new members spanning from Estonia in the north to Slovenia in the south. These countries, Broessler notes, will have to prove their worth, in particular with regard to the required standards of democracy and market economy.
But Broessler says that those who maintain it is still too early for enlargement should remember that, whereas East Germany was automatically included in the EU after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Prague and Warsaw have now been on the waiting list for 12 years.
"This seems ample time to have complied with EU laws and regulations, but also enough time for the EU project to cool down. Hence the newcomers are approaching the EU with skepticism; on the other hand, they themselves are also regarded with suspicion."
The candidate countries feel frustrated at the idea of being considered a burden and not a benefit, says Broessler. He writes, "[The] dividends of integration remain remarkably little-noticed. There is much talk about the costs of enlargement, but much less about the price of non-enlargement. If the enlargement process failed, Germany and other EU countries would pay an immeasurable price for the lack of stability in neighboring countries."
In a contribution to "Eurasia View," Miriam Lanskoy of Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict Ideology and Policy looks at this week's adoption of a resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on human rights abuses in Chechnya. She says many fear the resolution is "too mild," and that there is a growing frustration with international institutions for failing to hold the Kremlin accountable for human rights abuses. "This year, few expect PACE to confront Russian officials about the growing number of abuses against Chechen civilians," she says.
Lanskoy says the Kremlin has "effectively barred" foreign and domestic journalists from covering the war by imposing restrictions on travel within the republic. "The few international humanitarian organizations that maintain a presence in Chechnya have also come under severe pressure," she says, noting that last December, "armed gunmen stormed the offices of the Danish Refugee Council and beat up the staff."
Lanskoy concludes, "Russian representatives have made countless promises to curb human rights abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. Yet these outrages continue unabated. It is highly doubtful that Russia will abide by whatever measures PACE adopts, unless stiff penalties are imposed for non-compliance. And such penalties themselves appear unlikely."
In the French daily "Le Monde," Natalie Nougayrede writes that Russia has "escaped" being saddled with sanctions by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at its meeting this week. She notes that PACE suspended Russia's voting rights at the assembly in protest of its Chechen campaign in April 2000, but reinstated it the following year. She points out that this temporary sanction was the only one ever to be leveled by an international institution against Russia on the Chechen issue.
Nougayrede notes that the resolution adopted by PACE states that "observable" progress has been made regarding Russian attitudes toward the Chechen issue. "These assertions go against all reports filed in the past months by organizations for the defense of human rights," says Nougayrede. On the contrary, she says, these groups speak of "a 'deterioration' on the ground, with increased numbers of civilian disappearances and the fatal 'cleansings' of villages by Russian forces." Nougayrede goes on to note that the head of the Russian delegation in Strasbourg, Dmitri Ragozine, rejected any suggestions of embarking on a peace process aimed at independence for the breakaway republic. Nougayrede quotes him as comparing this possibility to "negotiating with terrorist number one, Osama bin Laden."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
In the "International Herald Tribune," columnist Flora Lewis says the "peace process" in the Middle East has come to an end. "It is an illusion to think that negotiations might be revived," she writes. She says the idea of a peace process as the gradual movement towards a new Israeli-Palestinian relationship has misled people "into thinking that what mattered was a little more time." Lewis says at this point, "It may be that attitudes have hardened to the point where it won't really be possible to talk seriously of a chance for peace again until the leaders of both sides, [Israel's] Ariel Sharon and [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat, have successors."
She calls Israel's latest incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas such as Nablus and Tulkarm "acts of military occupation without the full burden of administrative responsibility. Retribution and security are the justifications offered," she says, noting that each such action brings retaliation from the other side, which leads to another act, ad infinitum. "No one can imagine that this is the path to reconciliation," she says.
"Nothing can be settled this way," Lewis writes. "Nobody is going to win. But it makes even less sense to pretend that a bit of diplomacy, a bit of pressure here and there, a bit of luck, and this terrible deterioration can be turned around. It won't be."
NEW YORK TIMES:
In "The New York Times," Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program says that the Israeli government maintains its insistence that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is the sole reason behind the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. The United States, Malley writes, "also says the onus is on Mr. Arafat and passively looks on -- occasionally dispatching its special envoy when the situation looks better, keeping him home as soon as events take a turn for the worse. Today, this is what passes for policy," Malley notes wryly. "This approach is an almost certain recipe for catastrophe," he adds.
Malley says there is "an oddly abstract quality to the current reaction to Palestinian belligerence, as if that belligerence were devoid of context. Of course, it is not. [Regardless] of how the current intifada began, it has by now become a mutually reinforcing cycle of Palestinian violence and terror on the one hand and devastating Israeli military attacks on the other." There is a broader political context as well, he says. "The intifada is the latest chapter in a conflict that opposes two peoples living on the same land and struggling over it. Any end to violence will depend on taking steps to end the conditions that helped produce it -- the pervasive and persistent military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."
A "Washington Post" editorial says that the handling of the controversy surrounding the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by U.S. officials, has been a public relations debacle. The editorial says the global outcry has stemmed largely from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's policy "of strictly limiting media access [while] offering accounts of U.S. handling of the prisoners that have been by turns vague, flippant or simply wrong." It notes that Rumsfeld incorrectly labeled the prisoners as "unlawful combatants," and wrongly stated that they were not covered by the Geneva Convention. The editorial adds that Rumsfeld "refused to provide a list of the prisoners or the countries they are from, and several times suggested that he was unconcerned about their treatment. [Much] of what he said suggested that the [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration would respect international law only so far as it chose to."
The editorial goes on to say that "construction of more sturdy and permanent housing for detainees should be speeded, and more outside observers given a closer look at the facilities that now exist. Most important, the administration should make clear that it will fully respect the Geneva Convention in its handling of all detainees. Doing so would not hamper its ability to prosecute Al-Qaeda and Taliban members for the crimes they have committed. [It] will, however, make clear that the United States upholds international human rights law," it says.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)