Prague, 16 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Much commentary in the Western press today focuses on the new alliance between Russia and NATO, embodied in the creation on 14 May of a joint council to deal with areas of common concern and to foster increased cooperation. Several commentators debate the significance of this new council, and whether it will ultimately strengthen or weaken the NATO alliance. Other issues addressed include the situation in the Middle East, unfinished business in the Balkans, and opening up the Caspian Basin's energy reserves.
An editorial in Britain's "The Guardian" says that despite recent agreement on creating a new joint NATO-Russia Council, the global "strategic furniture" is still shifting. The paper notes the new joint council gives Russia an equal say in much NATO decision making, remarking Russia's view on any given issue "will typically carry more weight than that of Greece or Iceland."
The paper says the Reykjavik agreement "clears the way for NATO expansion from the Baltic republics to Ukraine, even ultimately into the Caucasus and Central Asia. But with each new member, NATO becomes less of a military alliance, more of a crossbred political animal. Far from opposing NATO's growth," the paper says, perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin "calculates that a larger, disparate alliance will be a weaker, less threatening one." Maybe Putin, it adds, "now operating on the inside, sees opportunities to influence the Western policy debate" on issues such as Iraq or Palestine.
Putin also seeks to revive Russia's economic outlook, in part through World Trade Organization membership and greater access to Western markets for Russian oil and gas. Both goals are now closer to being realized, following Russia's unprecedented cooperation with the West.
The editorial concludes that Putin is "playing a weak hand skillfully" and strategically moving Russia closer to its goals. It may appear that the West has drawn Russia closer to its side, says the paper, but the game may be deeper than it seems.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:
An editorial in "The Daily Telegraph" today says there is now a "congruence of interest" between former Cold War foes Russia and the United States. But this congruence "should give West European countries pause for thought," it says. "In Washington's eyes, they showed themselves wanting in the Balkans.... [Meanwhile,] the Americans have dealt with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan largely on their own."
At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik on 14 May, Washington "once again pressed its European allies to increase their defense spending. The response, as usual, was equivocal," the paper says.
"The Telegraph" cautions that "if things continue as they are, trans-Atlantic ties will further slip and a greatly expanded NATO will metamorphose from a cohesive military alliance into a loose political organization stretching from the ocean to the Urals."
The paper says such a weakening of the alliance would be "an outcome of which the old Soviet war horses would be proud."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
A commentary by Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says NATO is "languishing today under its European members' inadequate equipment." He says NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson was correct in saying that NATO now faces the choice of either "modernization" of its capabilities or "marginalization" in global affairs.
"The past months have shown how fast the Atlantic alliance can fade into insignificance, at least in the public perception." Article 5 -- which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all -- was invoked for the first time in alliance history in solidarity with the U.S. after the 11 September attacks. But that "pledge of assistance to the United States against terrorism remained largely a symbolic act," says Frankenberger. "Little military action of substance followed under the NATO heading."
In contrast, he notes, Russia lent its support in concrete military terms, earning praise from Washington -- "in stark contrast to the disparaging remarks about support from Europe."
Several German papers continue to monitor the situation in the Middle East, in light of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's call yesterday for reforming the Palestinian Authority and new elections that would give Palestinians separate judicial, executive, and legislative branches.
In "Die Welt," Jacques Schuster suggests Arafat's remarks were meaningless, and thus safe to "comfortably forget." He says Arafat has made empty statements so often in the past about coming to new agreements that this latest means little.
It is high time reforms were enacted to change the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East, says Schuster. But as is often the case, Arafat remains vague. He continuously makes use of the conflict with Israel to defer necessary reforms. Schuster writes: "Arafat needs extreme crises to keep himself in power. Everything else is subordinate to this goal -- including his speeches."
In a similar vein, Peter Muench, writing in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's speech might lead people to believe that "he is singing an ode to peace, joy, and freedom." But anyone who has a longer political memory of Arafat will know that he alone is responsible for the ills of the Palestinian Authority.
Muench says Arafat is not only being attacked by Israel but by his own people. He is also now attempting to escape from himself and his own shortcomings. Muench comments that it is strange Arafat wants to head a reform movement at this point, since reforms in the Arafat style would be useless. The PA's corruption and nepotism need to be wiped out. Maybe Arafat has garnered some sympathy in the past in the face of attacks by Israel, but Muench concludes, "This has not endowed him with competence, and he has now lost his power base."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," James Gow of the International Peace and Security program at King's College, London, says that despite NATO's relative success in the Balkans, there is still much work to be done to bring lasting peace to the region. Gow says the long-term goal for the Balkan nations "is integration with the leading Western institutions, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Only then can NATO even begin to consider ending its peacekeeping deployments there, moving from enforcement to partnership with them."
He says the main obstacles to the Balkans rejoining Europe as a partner are the "unreformed military and police structures" dating from the era of ousted President Slobodan Milosevic." NATO, he says, should take the lead in reforming these institutions. First, it must help the Yugoslav army find a new role and "help create a framework for democratic control of the military."
Gow says the army is, at present, "an army without a country." A stateless military "is not under any serious political control," which allows it to be easily politicized. Many within it are loyal to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, but many are not. As a result, Gow says the military "has become party to the political feud between Mr. Djindjic, a pro-Western reformer, and the more nationalistic president of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica."
The political loyalties of the VJ as a whole, he says, remain unclear.
A "Stratfor" commentary today looks at two recent agreements between Caspian nations as steps toward dividing control of the region's energy resources. Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazerbaev signed an agreement on 13 May to equally split three petroleum deposits located on their common Caspian Sea border. On 14 May, Azerbaijan's parliament ratified a deal with Russia formally demarcating Azerbaijan's Caspian border.
The commentary says these two events "open the door to full exploitation of the northern half of the Caspian Sea."
In the 10 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, petroleum development in the Caspian region has stagnated due to land disputes among the five littoral states. Until it could be decided who had control over what, says "Stratfor," "any talk of foreign investment was moot."
Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan's recent agreements with Russia indicate that these three of the five regional nations "now see a more cooperative approach as being in their own self-interests." With some of the territorial issues now resolved, they "can begin developing their respective sectors in earnest."
The other two littoral states, Iran and Turkmenistan, had proved "inflexible in their negotiating positions," and neither has yet attracted investment as a result. "Stratfor" says with Iran "in Washington's sights" and Turkmenistan under the tight control of President Saparmurat Niyazov, it is "exceedingly unlikely" that investors will be in any hurry -- "particularly if Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia keep making progress further north."
THE BOSTON GLOBE:
An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says the announced agreement between Russia and the U.S. to dismantle portions of their nuclear arsenals is not an agreement to end the Cold War. That "nasty chapter" of history, it says, ended more than a decade ago.
By agreeing to reduce their arsenals from between 5,000 and 6,000 warheads each to between 1,700 and 2,200, "the two leaders are merely certifying how excessive and unnecessary the arsenals they inherited from the bygone era of the Cold War have become."
But the treaty has some significant weaknesses, says the "Globe." "In the name of maintaining flexibility, the United States refused to dismantle all the warheads that will be taken out of service. Understandably, the Russian side views this insistence on retaining removed warheads as 'spares' as a lingering threat, a source of instability."
The United States also "passed up an opportunity to slash the strategic arsenals of both countries to lower levels." The Russians, who can no longer afford to maintain their nuclear arsenals, "were eager to cooperate," but the U.S. administration refused.
The newspaper concludes that "old Cold War reflexes" still linger among some of the Bush administration's conservative hawks.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)