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Western Press Review: Chirac's 'Boycott,' Benes Decrees, Russia's Energy Surge

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today continues to look into French politics, in light of the surprise results of Sunday's (21 April) presidential elections, in which far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in the voting. Other issues discussed are the scheduled meeting today between Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and U.S. President George W. Bush, reaffirming the Czech Republic's Benes Decrees, Russia's rising importance as an energy producer, and the situation in the Middle East.

THE TIMES:

An editorial in "The Times" of Britain discusses the announcement by French President Jacques Chirac that he refuses to debate far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen ahead of the second round of presidential elections on 5 May. Chirac has said that, faced with what he called Le Pen's "intolerance and hate, [no] dealing is possible, no compromise is possible, no debate is possible."

Chirac's announcement has been welcomed by much of the French political establishment, including many of his "improbable allies" on the left side of the political spectrum. But "The Times" suggests that democracies might be wise to consider debates obligatory. The paper says that although Le Pen upset electoral expectations with his surprisingly strong showing at the polls, this does not mean that a debate is optional. Whatever one might think of Le Pen or his National Front party, "his tally of votes entitles him to be treated as if [he's] a regular candidate," the editorial says.

The paper goes on to suggest that Chirac's boycott is actually aiding Le Pen's cause. One of Le Pen's "most effective claims" is that he "has been ostracized by a self-serving establishment," and this has won him votes. The editorial says Le Pen's criticisms of Chirac and other mainstream politicians "will only assume additional credibility if Chirac is seen to have backed away from a televised encounter" with his challenger.

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the anticipated meeting today in Texas between Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and U.S. President George W. Bush. The paper says that while there are many differences between the two leaders and their countries' policies, their futures are inextricably linked for the foreseeable future.

However, tensions between them are currently running high. As the paper writes: "The Israeli-Palestinian standoff remains acute. There is belligerent talk that unless Washington presses [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon to restrain his military and convenes a Mideast peace conference, Saudi Arabia might reduce oil exports and military cooperation with Washington...."

America is now "at war" with Islamic terrorism, "while Saudi Arabia has for years been the principal exporter and bankroller of radical Islam...." But the editorial adds that Prince Abdullah "appears to be relatively forward-looking, and there is reason to think that he and Mr. Bush can find common ground."

The paper says Saudi Arabia "is the dominant economic power of the Arab Mideast.... [Its] potential diplomatic influence is enormous. It is also the world's No. 1 oil exporter and the leading purchaser of American military equipment, factors that will continue to link its fortunes to Washington despite current tensions."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG:

An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" suggests that "the prime duty of politics is to assure legal security." The paper says in light of the unanimous adoption yesterday of a declaration by the Czech parliament, Czechs can now be secure in the knowledge that Germany will not attempt to reclaim property seized by the Czechs after World War II. The declaration stated that the postwar Benes Decrees are inviolable and rendered any restitution claims unfounded. Named for former Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes, the decrees also provided for the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia because, it was said, they had collaborated with the Nazis.

The commentary questions the wisdom of the Czech parliament's decision and describes Prague's politicians as "cowards," who lack the courage to admit that however necessary and, perhaps, even unavoidable the decrees may have been, they were and are a violation of human rights. The parliament claims it acted under pressure from the public, although the paper says the Czech media have been conducting a rather open public debate. But Minister of Culture Pavel Dostal -- usually an honorable man, says the editorial -- is now accusing the largely German-owned media in the Czech Republic of being influenced by pressure from German interest groups. It seems, the commentary concludes, that 12 years after the fall of communism, "civil society remains somewhat alien to Prague politicians."

FINANCIAL TIMES:

In Britain's "Financial Times," David Buchan and Andrew Jack look at Russia's rising importance to the West as an energy producer. They say that at this weekend's meeting of European Union energy ministers in Pamplona, Spain, the head of Russia's energy giant Gazprom will be quizzed as to "how far Europe can rely on Russia," as the holder of a quarter of the world's gas reserves.

The authors say one reason Western companies are prepared to risk returning to Russia is its oil price. Having sunk to $10 a barrel in 1998, it has been climbing relatively steadily and "is now buoyed up by Middle East tensions." These same tensions "are also a reminder to Western governments and companies of the usefulness of non-OPEC alternatives to Middle East oil."

In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin has established some much-needed stability in the country and bolstered property rights, a crucial prerequisite for foreign investors. Several major Russian investors are also now ready to sell their energy interests, having diversified their portfolios beyond the oil sector.

The authors conclude that "since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has been trying to strike a special energy relationship with Russia. That could now be within its grasp."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

An editorial in "The New York Times" today considers the legal situation of the suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban members currently incarcerated at a U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The paper says the Bush administration's efforts "to sidestep America's existing civil and military courts" to prosecute the suspects in military tribunals is "misguided."

Now, it says, the Pentagon "is straining to come up with a legal theory" that will allow it to bring 300 detainees before the tribunals without any specific evidence that they have committed war crimes. The paper calls this attempt "distressing." "In the United States, we do not arrest people and then devise laws to prosecute and convict them."

"The New York Times" says there is "no compelling justification" for creating "a parallel legal system," and notes the Pentagon has lately run into problems in its attempts to tie many of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay "to specific violations of the laws of war."

The editorial says many of the crimes committed in relation to 11 September "are distinctive and may call for innovative prosecutorial strategies, but not ones that depart from fundamental American principles of justice." The paper suggests that an independent judicial review of these cases is needed. "Trying them in regular civilian or military courts is the best way to ensure this."

LIBERATION:

In France's daily "Liberation," Mideast correspondent Alexandra Schwartzbrod writes from Jerusalem that Israelis, a majority of whom have approved of the launch of the latest army offensive into Palestinian territories, are now realizing the heavy cost of these operations. Earlier this week (23 April), Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a series of austerity measures to be implemented in order to address the urgent situation in the country following 19 months of intifada -- Israel's budget deficit has reached $2.3 billion. The measures are expected to include a general salary freeze, a reduction in welfare, cutting ministerial budgets by 2 percent, levying new taxes, increasing the value-added tax (VAT) by a point, and price increases in gas and cigarettes. Schwartzbrod says that in making these proposals, Sharon has endangered his governing coalition, which has held up rather well throughout the military operations of recent weeks.

Schwartzbrod says while some Israelis already turn over close to 60 percent of their incomes to the treasury, this rigorous financial plan provoked criticisms from the press and the labor union association is threatening a general strike in weeks to come. Most politicians also reject these costs, she notes. Schwartzbrod says the austerity plan is due for review on 28 April by the government and will be introduced next week to the Israeli parliament.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank, looks at the trans-Atlantic divide in opinion on the Middle East and Iraq. Grant says most disputes between Europe and America "matter only to policy elites or a minority of the public." But the Mideast is different, he says, as public opinion is strong on both continents. Many Americans regard Israeli military responses as justified. Europeans, in contrast, regard Israeli Prime Minister Sharon as mainly responsible for the escalation in violence.

Grant cites suggestions made by U.S. politicians of reasons for this opinion gap. One suggested that Europe has always followed a policy of appeasement, of meeting violence with concessions. Others suggested lingering anti-Semitism, or that the Muslim population in European countries influences the public view.

But Grant notes that Europeans would suggest other reasons: "They would argue that the long experience of terrorism in places such as Northern Ireland and the Basque country has taught Europeans that military action alone cannot stop it; and that force, if disproportionate, can swell the numbers of terrorists and the international support they receive."

Grant goes on to say that both Europe and America agree on the general outlines of a Mideast peace settlement, of a land-for-peace deal. In implementing such a plan, he suggests, the West should avoid seeking to blame one side or the other for the conflict.

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

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