Prague, 25 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today is dominated by the ongoing hostage crisis in Moscow. On the evening of 23 October, a group of armed Chechen militants seized a theater and are now holding hundreds of people inside. The hostage takers have threatened to blow up the theater unless Russia ends its war in Chechnya. Several hostages were released yesterday and early today as negotiations continue.
Other topics addressed include the Franco-German dispute over EU farm subsidies and today's meeting between the Chinese and U.S. presidents in Crawford, Texas.
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
A "Wall Street Journal Europe" commentary today says the hostage situation in Moscow shows "the desperation [of] Chechen rebels and the futility of Russia's war in Chechnya."
Years of brutal warfare have radicalized Chechen separatists, the paper says. "Russian forces and Chechens alike have been criminalized in a war where the dividing lines between the two warring parties, and between civilians and combatants, have been totally blurred."
The "Journal" says Russian President Vladimir Putin has been responsible for "four years of rank brutality," including the "destruction of villages, the targeting of civilians, torture and other viciousness."
Putin "has repeatedly escalated the conflict [and] rejected negotiations, Chechen autonomy or withdrawal from Chechnya." The paper says Putin "has an opportunity to break with that pattern now."
But the political temptation for Putin will be "to take a harder line in Chechnya and Georgia," perhaps even to offer Russian support for U.S. military action in Iraq in exchange for U.S. approval of a tougher policy in the Caucasus. Putin has already been quick to link this hostage taking to other terrorist acts, "from the World Trade Center to the Bali attack." But these pragmatic political calculations will "get him nowhere," says the paper.
The "Journal" says Putin's policy in Chechnya is "undermining his claim for Russia to have equal status with other Western nations."
Columnist Martin Woollacott, writing in the British "Guardian," says what little sympathy Muscovites may have had for the Chechen cause will be "dissipated by the hostage seizure," even if it ends peacefully. But if the crisis ends in bloodshed, there will be doubts cast on the effectiveness of President Vladimir Putin's administration, as well as "intense anger against the Chechens, which will give the [Russian] government even more immunity against criticism of its conduct of the war in Chechnya."
Woollacott goes on to remark that even a successful Russian occupation of Chechnya -- complete with "a restoration of order, return of refugees and rebuilding of the economy -- would leave intact unreconciled groups who might well carry on with terrorist actions."
He says "intelligent occupiers in these situations usually aim at achieving a sufficient degree of military success to negotiate from strength. Then they are ready to make some concessions if they can preserve their prestige and certain key objectives." In Russia's case, those would be to maintain access to the Caucasus and the "oil regions beyond, and to have an administration in Grozny respectful of Russian interests and able [to] contain its own extremists."
Ultimately, says Woollacott, the Moscow hostages "are victims of a conflict between two weak and damaged societies, strong enough to make war in their different ways but not strong enough to make peace."
An editorial in the British "Daily Telegraph" says Russian President Vladimir Putin "has been quick to claim that the hostage-taking was planned abroad." This allegation serves his interests in two ways: "First, that the rebels enjoy a safe haven in Georgia; second, that they are linked with Al-Qaeda."
The "Telegraph" says the first charge "serves Moscow's wish to conduct cross-border military operations in the Pankisi Gorge. The second incorporates the Chechen insurrection into [U.S. President George W.] Bush's global war on terror."
But the paper says the Moscow hostage taking "has, rather, the marks of an indigenous operation, the latest phase of a 250-year struggle by Chechens to rid their soil of Russians."
Putin must first ensure the release of those held captive, says the editorial. But beyond that, "he should take advantage of the harm the hostage-taking has done to the rebel cause by outflanking the extremists and opening talks" with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Maskhadov, elected in 1997, is a moderate who has condemned rebel attacks such as this in the past. Yet the "Telegraph" says "he has been largely ignored by Moscow. Russian troops in Chechnya lack the training and will to force a victory. Their opponents lack the power to drive them out. The stalemate suggests a change of tactic," says the paper. "Political finesse is now required."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Carola Schlagheck says French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder "surprisingly reached an agreement over contentious farm subsidies" yesterday, ahead of a two-day EU summit that began that evening in Brussels. The two countries' disagreement over agriculture subsidies "had been at the heart of the debate over how to finance EU enlargement."
Germany is the EU's biggest net contributor, and farm subsidies account for 40 percent of the EU's total budget. France is the EU's single largest beneficiary of these farm subsidies. The leaders' divergent interests had led to a stalemate on the issue, as France resisted any alteration to the current regime, while Germany demanded reform.
But yesterday, Schroeder agreed to extend the current system until 2006, but has said he would support decreasing subsidies for EU farmers in exchange for a corresponding rise in subsidies to accession countries. Chirac, for his part, agreed to freeze expenditures at the 2006 level, plus some minor adjustments for inflation.
Another contentious issue being debated is "how much the EU should pay to support the poorest regions in the new member countries," and how to compensate new EU members that would start off being net contributors to the EU until subsidies begin. But Schlagheck says the unexpected Franco-German agreement yesterday has "[set] the tone" for the Brussels meeting.
In Britain's "Guardian," the daily's East Asia editor, John Gittings, says it would seem that "friendship diplomacy is in full swing" between China and the United States, as U.S. President George W. Bush prepares to welcome Chinese President Minister Jiang Zemin to his ranch in Texas.
Jiang is now a bona fide member of the antiterrorism coalition, but a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq poses "both a problem and an opportunity" for China. "To concur in a U.S. war will be to condone American unilateralism, of which China has strongly disapproved in the past."
Gittings says the question now "is what kind of price Mr. Jiang can exact for Chinese acquiescence -- for, whatever the final resolution [on Iraq], everyone expects Beijing at least to abstain" when it comes to a vote at the UN Security Council. Washington has already made "a down payment" on Chinese support for an Iraq campaign "by listing the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization -- undercutting any criticism of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang region."
But Gittings says "the real prize for Beijing would be a U.S. commitment to tone down its support for the pro-independence government in Taiwan."
Gittings says the big questions "will not, however, be solved by a ranch barbecue." Chinese hard-liners, "like the hard-liners in Washington, [see] confrontation ahead for which China must get prepared: There could still be knives behind the smiles."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
In "The New York Times," political science professor Kenneth Lieberthal says signs of U.S.-Sino cooperation are "everywhere." China has worked with the U.S. "on the global counterterrorism effort, will not be the spoiler on a new United Nations resolution on Iraq, [and] is discussing cooperation with the United States on North Korea." Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to Texas today "is another sign of good relations," he says.
China's leaders have been eager to stabilize the relationship with the United States, says Lieberthal. "They also count on American trade and investment to keep their economy growing fast enough to maintain domestic stability. China's approach to foreign policy is "increasingly pragmatic, nuanced and consistent, eschewing the petulant stances that seemed in times past to reflect an underlying inferiority complex. In the last year, China has skillfully evaluated and acted on its opportunities for strategic cooperation with the United States."
Yet Lieberthal says one "should not forget that this relationship has long been characterized by wide swings of emotion, from amity to anger." Hard-liners on both sides, the Taiwan issue, and divergent interests regarding Iraq could still pose numerous obstacles to thawing relations.
Lieberthal cautions, "It may be too early to say that the relationship has stabilized for the long-term."
The British "Financial Times" also looks at Sino-U.S. relations, saying that the 11 September attacks "may have demonstrated that Washington and Beijing have common concerns, but it also dramatically increased U.S. engagement in Asia. The presence of long-term American bases in China's backyard in central Asia, a sharp improvement in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, China's traditional ally, and increased American support for counter-terrorism in Southeast Asia have altered, perhaps irrevocably, the geostrategic balance in China's sphere of influence."
Nevertheless, Jiang has carefully kept Chinese relations with the U.S. on safe ground. The U.S. administration "was deeply skeptical about constructive engagement with China and there is still no evidence that improved relations are leading to the political reform [that] engagement was supposed to foster." But the paper notes that since the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush came to office, China has "joined the World Trade Organization, expanding opportunities for U.S. exporters; dramatic changes in geopolitics have produced an unexpected coincidence of interests between the two countries; and the administration has found more urgent things to worry about than the long-term challenge from Beijing."
"Washington Post" staff writers Craig Whitlock, Sari Horwitz, and Manuel Roig-Franzia discuss the outcome of the investigation into the Washington, D.C.-area sniper. A suspect and his teenage stepson were arrested earlier this week (23 Oct). The writers say that, in the end, solving the case "came down to three calls, out of the 90,000 tips sent in" from a "shocked" nation.
These tips led police to a murder in the southern U.S. state of Alabama. "A fingerprint in Alabama gave them a name. That name gave them another name and a local connection." Within seven days, the suspects were arrested, "ending three weeks of massive and futile dragnets [and] false leads."
On the evening of 23 October, authorities issued warrants for the arrest of suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17. Officials appeared on national television to ask people to look out for the two men, as well as the car they were suspected of driving.
"About an hour later, a motorist at a rest [stop] spotted the car. About 3:30 a.m., police arrested Malvo and Muhammad, who had been sleeping inside the automobile." The apprehension of the sleeping suspects thus brings the likely end to a string of 13 attacks, of which 10 were fatal.