Prague, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Much analysis in the Western press today centers on the Arab summit beginning today in Beirut, which is expected to focus largely on the conflict in the Middle East. The summit's opening has been somewhat overshadowed by the non-attendance of three key regional leaders: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has declined to attend amid speculation that Israel would not permit his return to his headquarters in Ramallah.
Other topics addressed today include political tension in Central Asia, strains in trans-Atlantic relations, Ukraine's parliamentary elections on 31 March, and events in Afghanistan.
In the regional daily "Eurasia View," CIS affairs analyst and journalist Igor Torbakov says the recent violent clashes in Kyrgyzstan illustrate a general trend in Central Asia toward the radicalization of opposition movements. Torbakov says the Kyrgyz clashes, which began as a protest against the arrest of parliament member Azimbek Beknazarov on charges that many felt were politically motivated, "mark a watershed in the political development of Central Asian states. Having made no political gains with peaceful methods, government opponents now seem willing to directly confront entrenched authority," he says.
Political opposition movements in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have also intensified their antigovernment campaigns recently, he notes.
Torbakov suggests that "Central Asia's chronic problems -- including ecological hazards, growing poverty, and population overcrowding -- have made the region a breeding ground for radical movements and ideologies." And due to what he calls regional leaders' "incompetence, mismanagement, and brutal handling of political opponents, Central Asian authorities are prodding various segments of the political opposition into ever more radical actions."
Torbakov adds that the advent of a U.S. military presence in Central Asia "has emboldened regional leaders, including [Kyrgyz President Askar] Akaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, to act forcefully to bolster their personal authority." But Torbakov suggests that the increasingly confrontational approach being used by opposition movements is a reaction to these government attempts "to step up repression and tighten control over society."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" discusses the options open to voters in Ukraine's parliamentary elections this Sunday (31 March). The editorial says Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's "heavy-handed tactics against the free media and opposition parties [seem] intended to secure his and his clan's hold on power and privilege." Kuchma's governments, it says, have been "rife with corruption" and have "stalled [economic] reforms for years, impoverishing millions."
But economic policy changes introduced by former Prime Minister and Central Bank Governor Viktor Yushchenko helped turn things around, the paper says. Yushchenko "got the budget under control and reined in inflation." But the "reforms are incomplete and Ukraine is a long way from prosperity," says the "Journal." It notes Ukrainian GDP per capita is a mere $800.
Yushchenko's opposition party is currently leading Kuchma's in the polls. His party and others promise to address Ukraine's economic problems. Kuchma's followers pledge the same, but the editorial says "their past track records [lead] to suspicions that they will shy away from reforms once in power."
The "Journal" concludes: "Voters will have real choices of parliamentary candidates Sunday, but the effectiveness of their choices will hinge on whether the president allows room [for] parliament to exercise the popular will. While an improving economy strengthens Ukraine's sense of nationhood and independence, Mr. Kuchma looks more and more like a liability."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In "The Washington Post," David Broder looks at current tensions in trans-Atlantic relations. He says while the "immediate irritant" is the 30 percent tariff U.S. President George W. Bush has placed on many steel imports to the U.S., the "looming and larger" issue is Iraq and American plans to topple the Iraqi leader.
"From the European perspective," writes Broder, "Washington looks unpredictable, erratic, and impulsive."
In response to the steel tariffs, Broder says Europeans "are furious. And they are ready to fight back." The European Union is reportedly planning to tax "Florida orange juice and Wisconsin-made motorcycles" in retaliation, he notes. Broder remarks that the steel-tariff decision is beginning to look like "one of the worst of the Bush presidency."
But Broder says European anxiety over U.S. plans in Iraq is even more severe. Bush's linkage of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" did not make sense to Europeans, and "came as a shock to countries that had offered Washington strong support for the first phase of the post-11 September war on terrorism."
Europe has many questions for the U.S. related to plans in Iraq, says Broder. Bush's lack of consultation with U.S. allies "is a chronic complaint," he says, "but rarely has it reached this level of anxiety."
He concludes by saying the "slide in Euro-American relations needs to be addressed."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" considers the prospects for the Arab League summit opening today in Beirut, a notable feature of which is the absence of key Middle Eastern leaders. Jordan's King Abdullah joins a number of other Arab leaders who have said they will not be attending the two-day summit, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The commentary says that although little action of significance has emerged from the Arab League since it was established in 1945, it now has an opportunity "to shed the callow image that it has bestowed upon itself."
All hopes are being pinned on the Saudi peace proposal put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah, which offers Israel normalized relations with Arab nations in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all lands occupied since the 1967 war. This, the paper says, could be a real starting point for peace in the Middle East. But it adds that the summit may also signify "the last opportunity for a settlement."
The paper concludes that the outcome of the Beirut meeting depends on whether the Arabs are in a position to put forward a credible blueprint for peace, forcing a positive reaction from Israel.
A piece in France's daily "Le Monde" also discusses the Arab summit beginning today in Beirut and says it will suffer from the notable absences of key Middle Eastern leaders, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The paper notes that Arafat's announcement that he had decided not to attend the meeting may have been based on reports that Israel was considering forbidding his post-summit return to his Ramallah headquarters. The paper says this anxiety over his return stems from what it calls "the draconian conditions placed by Israel on Yasser Arafat's participation in the summit, and the right of retaliation reserved by the [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon government in case these conditions were not respected."
The Saudi peace initiative -- offering a normalization of Arab-Israeli relations in exchange for Israel's retreat from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights -- will be at the center of discussions. But the paper notes that Israel's Sharon has already rejected this idea, judging it too dangerous for Israeli security to return all these territories.
But it says Arab leaders plan to call upon international, and perhaps Israeli, public opinion on the matter, adding that Middle Eastern leaders at the summit should adopt the Saudi proposal.
In Britain's "The Times," an editorial also weighs in on the possibilities for the Saudi peace proposal. It says this initiative "puts forward, for the first time in decades, an Arab proposal for an overall settlement in the Middle East. It is far from comprehensive, unlikely to be acceptable to most Israelis and is deliberately vague on the all-important question of how violence will be ended. It is, though, a start. And at a time when daily atrocities are making attitudes ever more intractable, the Arabs would be well advised to commit themselves, with no ifs or buts, to its adoption."
"The Times" adds: "Quibbling attempts to accommodate the hard-liners -- such as Iraq and Libya, who have no intention of being accommodated -- will sink the initiative overnight. The Israelis, some of whom have expressed cautious interest in the offer, will see it as another piece of cynical propaganda; the Americans will conclude that the Arabs are not serious after all about a real initiative and will walk away from their renewed, and reluctant, involvement in peace-making."
The paper concludes that the Saudi proposal has "deliberately not spelt out all the details; this is a package whose political intent matters more now than precision on borders, diplomatic relations, and refugees -- all of which will, in any case, have to be negotiated with Israel."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
A contribution to the "International Herald Tribune" by Peter Sutherland, formerly of the World Trade Organization, and Bernard Hoekman of the World Bank's Development Research group, says the Beirut summit's focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is overshadowing "an equally imperative agenda item: what to do about a region increasingly mired in economic stagnation." The authors say the "economic performance of many Middle Eastern and North African countries during the past quarter- or half-century has trailed most other regions, despite the advantage of great oil wealth."
Trade protectionism, they write, "remains part of the problem. Tariffs, on average, remain high compared to Europe and the Americas. But the domestic reform agenda is most critical. The role of the state must be reduced and competition in service markets increased."
Sutherland and Hoekman says one reason for the region's economic decline is the failure "to connect to the global economy through foreign investment and trade in services and goods other than oil. A second reason is that most governments in the region have made scant headway in reducing the interventionist role of the state."
They conclude: "Without development and economic growth, the region will continue to fall further behind economically. [The] test for Middle Eastern and North African countries, mired for too long in economic decline, is to harness the benefits of trade by embracing domestic reform agendas."
A two-day meeting of government leaders from NATO candidate countries ended yesterday in Bucharest with participants from 10 aspiring countries -- the Vilnius Group -- pledging to step up cooperation and urging the alliance to accept them as NATO members at the alliance's November summit in Prague.
The summit prompted Nikolaus Blome to discuss the evolution of NATO's function in the daily "Die Welt." Originally, NATO was conceived as a military alliance to ward off any threat from communist nations and the former Soviet Union. The order of the day was a proof of military strength.
Now, Blome says, NATO is taking "a historic step." The original idea of new members having to prove their military strength has been abandoned, and today a political contribution is more important. It seems, says Blome, that the alliance has not yet found a reliable response to today's new threats. "Accepting six or seven new states which do not actually have functioning armies is converting NATO from a military alliance with political ambitions into a political alliance with a military past."
And yet, says Blome, an alternative is nowhere in sight.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" says that no coherent or effective policy for securing the peace in Afghanistan is yet in sight. It says that while training an Afghan national army is important for long-term security, for now, the interim administration's authority does not extend past Kabul and outside the capital, rival warlords continue to clash and create unrest.
The paper says the best solution would be to expand the International Security Assistance Force. "A total of 25,000 to 30,000 troops could secure Afghanistan's main population centers and roads," it writes. It says NATO nations "understood that preserving peace in Bosnia and Kosovo required a strong security presence. Similar considerations apply to Afghanistan, where the dangers of renewed civil war are as real and the potential consequences of instability even more frightening."
The paper says: "Besides providing more reliable security, stationing peacekeepers throughout the country would strengthen the central government at the expense of local warlords. Those benefits, in turn, would smooth the flow of humanitarian assistance to provincial centers. Rescuing Afghanistan will take more than defeating Taliban and Al-Qaeda holdouts on the battlefield, important though that is. It will also require establishing the authority of the central government and the rule of law throughout the country. That can be done only with expanded international help and more effective American leadership," the editorial concludes.
THE WASHINGTON POST:
An editorial in "The Washington Post" today on the same topic also calls for increased U.S. involvement in Afghan security. It says the current "minimalism" of the U.S. administration's strategy "greatly raises the risk that the U.S. mission will fail."
The paper writes: "U.S. advisers have been unable to stop rival warlords in the north from battling each other or from conducting campaigns of ethnic cleansing. From their sealed base at the giant Bagram airfield, U.S. combat forces can do nothing to prevent local commanders or bandits from choking Afghanistan's roads with checkpoints where civilians are robbed and assaulted. Nor can they help interim leader Hamid Karzai extend his authority over any place outside Kabul -- particularly if U.S. forces continue to cut their own deals with provincial warlords."
The "Post" says the U.S. administration's actions suggest it believes "rule by roadblocks and warlords" is good enough, "if the warlords can be bribed or intimidated into keeping foreign terrorists out of the country. Possibly such a narrow and ruthless calculus of U.S. interests will prove correct," says the paper. But it warns that what is more likely is that "the failure to commit to a more ambitious plan of peacekeeping or reconstruction now will only force a larger American commitment later, when U.S. commanders discover that a few thousand troops at Bagram air base are not, after all, enough to keep Afghanistan from slipping back toward chaos."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)