Prague, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the press today debates the merits of the German contribution to the international security force in Afghanistan, considers how to redefine NATO's role, and looks at Russian policy in the Caucasus. Other topics addressed include Uzbekistan's referendum and the Middle East.
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
A commentary by Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at the German contribution to the international security force in Afghanistan. Frankenberger notes that Berlin is now considering whether Germany can or should take over leadership of the security force at the end of March, when the three-month British command draws to a close. But Frankenberger says, "As already pointed out by the embarrassing circumstances surrounding deployment of the advance command, this commitment is pushing Germany's armed forces to the limits of their capability."
Frankenberger notes that both the Afghan interim government and the United Nations are in favor of Germany taking over when the British troops withdraw. There is also new momentum stemming from the perception that having German and Turkish troops form the main contingents under Turkish leadership would bring Ankara closer to EU membership. But, Frankenberger says, "such considerations fail to take into account that the German armed forces are at the end of their tether. In the condition in which they are currently being maintained, any new or more extensive mission -- while an outward sign that Germany is growing into a normal role in world politics -- would overstretch the Bundeswehr on a permanent basis, with no prospect of improved funding in return."
An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" says that ever since NATO lost its defining enemy, the Soviet Union, it has been "struggling to find its role." Its value, says the editorial, "increasingly lies in its function as a broader forum for common security concerns, as much as in its mutual defense obligations."
The "FT" says that at the NATO summit in November, the alliance needs to tackle this identity crisis. First, it must embrace new members, as offering membership to the Baltic states, Slovakia, and Slovenia is "more important than ever." Second, NATO must also increasingly engage Russia in discussions regarding common security interests without giving Russia a veto on important decisions. And third, says the paper, Europe must take more responsibility for its own security by spending more on defense, including rapidly deployable and special forces, as well as surveillance and intelligence.
The editorial concludes that NATO "is still crucial to a stable world, [as] it is the only organization that binds the U.S. to Europe and Europe to the U.S. [While] its military value has declined, its political importance has grown."
JANE'S INTELLIGENCE DIGEST:
An analysis by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" looks at Russia's aims in the Caucasus, particularly Georgia. It says the U.S.-led antiterrorism alliance has not only muted Western criticism of widespread human rights abuses in Chechnya but has also "turned a collective blind eye to Russia's re-assertion of control over Georgia."
Re-asserting Russian influence in Georgia is seen as a key ingredient of winning the war in Chechnya. Russia has long believed the Chechens use Georgia's northern Pankisi Gorge to launch attacks on Russian forces. "Jane's" says recent fighting in Abkhazia was instigated by Russia and was meant "to demonstrate to the outside world that Georgia is not in control of its own territory...[this means] the continued presence of Russian 'peacekeeping' units in Abkhazia and Russian military bases in Georgia." It adds that Russian officials "greatly exaggerated" the extent of the fighting in an effort to show Georgia's weakness and the need for Russian forces in the region.
The analysis also says Russian President Vladimir Putin supports the replacement of pro-Western Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze with a pro-Russian leader. This move would also be backed by the separatist Abkhazia region and neighboring Armenia, "Jane's" says. It writes: "Such a move would isolate pro-Turkish and pro-NATO Azerbaijan and greatly enhance Russia's position in the Caucasus." Jane's concludes that the next question will be whether Russia will also seek to re-assert its control over Azerbaijan.
In "The Washington Post," Fred Hiatt looks at the meeting between the Russian desk officer for the U.S. State Department and Ilyas Akhmadov, a representative of the separatist government in Chechnya. Hiatt says this meeting did not take place on government property but in an empty classroom at George Washington University, in order not to offend Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Hiatt says this type of "skulking diplomacy is odd," partly because U.S. President George W. Bush's "explicit policy on Chechnya is to convince the Russians that no military solution is possible and that Mr. Putin should meet with [Akhmadov] and his colleagues."
Hiatt says Putin's "strategy of choking the media" also comes into play. There is no longer any independent television to report on the war. He adds that it has been conservatively estimated that Russian forces have killed "some 12,000 Chechen fighters and 55,000 to 60,000 civilians."
Hiatt writes: "No one suggests that the United States can force Russia to alter its behavior." What is attainable, he says, "is a balanced policy toward Russia, in which legitimate horror at the war in Chechnya plays a credible and substantial role."
Otherwise, says Hiatt, U.S. policy is telling "every government that would like to disguise its rights abuses as anti-terrorism campaigns that Washington just might go along."
In "Eurasia View," Uzbekistan-based journalist Joshua Machleder discusses Uzbekistan's 27 January public referendum, which extended the term of President Islam Karimov from five to seven years, now set to end in 2007.
The author says that public "confusion and cynicism" characterized the voting. The Uzbek mass media did not sufficiently publicize aspects of the referendum or provide public forums for debate, he adds.
"The lack of prior debate left citizens disenchanted," writes Machleder. Many citizens were also unsure whether the referendum called for extending Karimov's current term until 2007 or extending the presidential term after the next elections, which were scheduled for 2005. Machleder says poll administrators instructed voters on this point differently at different polling stations. Some international observers condemned the referendum, although elections monitors from 30 countries were present to monitor the proceedings.
Machleder writes: "Interestingly, the referendum coincided with the arrival of the U.S.-Uzbek Joint Security Cooperation Commission, which will assess bilateral security relations." Uzbekistan has given U.S. forces a base from which to conduct operations and opened a bridge for relief supplies for Afghanistan. He quotes Elizabeth Andersen of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch as saying, "Karimov is testing the international community. [He] probably believes that he's traded a military base and a bridge for a free ride on democracy and human rights issues."
In France's daily "Liberation," Jean Quatremer and Alexandra Schwartzbrod say that as the United States reaffirms its support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the European Union reiterates its support for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The authors note that yesterday's (28 January) declaration by EU foreign ministers called on Israel to fight terrorism while at the same time making peace. Given the increasingly hard-line American and Israeli views, the authors say the EU's insistence on its pro-Arafat position was indeed a miracle.
Even so, given the ongoing degradation of the situation in the Middle East, Quatremer and Schwartzbrod say the 15 EU members are experiencing "a growing paralysis." For the past six months, they have held to "the same diplomatic language" -- that both the Israeli and Palestinian sides must make more of an effort -- even while Arafat has been increasingly marginalized.
It is prudence that dominates, say the authors. And the latest EU tactic -- that of threatening to charge the Israelis for damage done to elements of the EU-funded Palestinian infrastructure, is also "not likely to impress Sharon," they conclude.
In the Austrian paper "Die Presse," Gerhard Bitzan says the resignation of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would not lead to a solution of the Middle East crisis. He says Arafat actually only rules two strips of land -- West Jordan and the Gaza strip -- which are not economically viable and hence only afford limited autonomy. Nevertheless, he says, "Arafat was a proud symbol of the Palestinian struggle for independence, and wherever he appeared in the Arab world he was sure of support."
This has changed, Bitzan says, and Arafat's influence today is minimal. The policies of both Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are to blame for this, he says. But more importantly, where do we go from here?
The United States now stands squarely behind Israel, and the emboldened Sharon feels his policy to get rid of Arafat at all costs has been validated. Moreover, Arab states are showing little support for Palestine, and not even the Palestinians themselves are taking to the streets to boost their leader. So the question arises of whether there is any future for Arafat's leadership. It now depends on the Palestinians, says Bitzan, whether they are willing to stand by their leader. If not, Sharon will triumph here and now, but might be faced with a stronger negotiating partner in the long run.
In Germany's "Die Welt," Michael Stuermer agrees that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's demise will not improve the Mideast situation. Stuermer considers the limited options available and concludes that the key again lies in U.S. hands.
The U.S. cannot afford to break off relations with the Palestinian Authority, he says, for that would play into the hands of the terrorist Hamas and Jihad organizations. Stuermer concludes, "The chances depend on real PLO politicians, who rely on America and will suppress terrorists with force. This would open up new possibilities for President Bush to mediate and so help the desperate Arab regime."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)