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Western Press Review: Niyazov's Escape, Afghan Security And Russia's Trouble In The Caucasus

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Topics discussed in the Western media today include the assassination attempt yesterday on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, Washington's "wishful thinking" on Afghan security issues, the electoral defeat of nationalist Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider in Austria, Turkey's EU bid, and Russia's ongoing conflict in the Caucasus.


A Strategic Forecasting, or "Stratfor," commentary today takes a look at the assassination attempt yesterday on Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov's motorcade was sprayed with submachine-gun fire as he drove through the capital, Ashgabat.

Niyazov is known in Turkmenistan as the "Turkmenbashi," a title he adopted meaning father of all Turkmen. Earlier this year, he renamed many of the country's ports, streets, and other locales after himself or members of his family.

"Stratfor" says while there is still no evidence of who was behind the assassination attempt, Niyazov's "deliriously erratic mind" makes it "likely that he will act against the variety of threats he believes are assailing him. Niyazov feels he must prove he is both personally secure and professionally in control." "Stratfor" adds that this may result in a "wide-ranging series of security sweeps in which every power group with any presence in the country, including domestic and foreign business and political interests, faces an inquisition."

The commentary says such a reaction would not improve Niyazov's relations with either his countrymen or the outside world. "He already has alienated Moscow with his intransigence over natural-gas supplies, and Washington for his lack of cooperation in the war on terrorism." "Stratfor" says Niyazov's "unpredictability [has] scared most foreign investors away," and the few that remain may "rethink their involvement" if the president launches a large-scale investigation.


An item in Belgium's "Le Soir" today says 16 people have been arrested so far in connection with the assassination attempt yesterday on Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov. Of the 16, four are of Georgian origin and are not Turkmen citizens. According to a presidential spokesmen, an interrogation of the detainees revealed that four former officials now in exile were involved in the plot: former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and central bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Turkmen Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

"Le Soir" says Niyazov holds almost absolute control over the country, including the media, and presides over an almost Josef Stalin-like cult of personality that has seen the steady elimination of all political opposition. Turkmenistan was also the only Central Asian nation to maintain links with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But the editorial notes that it offered "discreet" help in the U.S.-led antiterrorist campaign by allowing fly-over rights to U.S. planes.


In "The Washington Post," Anne Applebaum calls it "fitting" that Austria's far-right Freedom Party leader, Joerg Haider, "himself helped destroy the party he created. His penchant for conspiracy and internal party coups helped end the Freedom Party's coalition with the Austrian center-right."

In the end, she says, Haider was not destroyed by outside pressure from European leaders, many of whom froze diplomatic relations with Austria after his party entered the government. That action merely led to crises in protocol, she says. Instead, it was the "same Austrian democracy that initially brought him to power" that led to his downfall. Although Haider's political rhetoric was often scurrilous, "he was also the first Austrian politician in years to speak of taboo subjects: immigration, yes, but also high taxes, economic stagnation, and the corruption brought about by several decades of complacent coalitions."

Austria's mainstream, center-right People's Party, taking notice of what worked in Haider's discourse, began also talking about tax cuts and privatization, and swept the 24 November elections. In effect, she says, "they stole his best -- and most respectable -- lines." Applebaum says that is "what can happen in working democracies: Issues that had been ignored and left to fester can suddenly help win elections."


Ulrich Glauber in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" looks at Austria's political future after the 24 November elections, in which Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's rightist People's Party registered sweeping gains, whereas Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party suffered the largest drop in popularity of any party since the end of the war. Glauber says, "the only way to fight right-wing populism is apparently to become a populist party oneself."

It is not exactly to Schuessel's credit that Haider lost. Conflicts within the Freedom Party also contributed. Schuessel chased after votes by adopting a similar stance to his far-right rival. His party, with "its Christian roots," played on the same anti-immigration sentiments that Haider's did.

"Schuessel profiled himself at the expense of his competitors, and that will backfire on him with a vengeance," says Glauber. Nobody wants to join him. The Greens would "tear apart" such a coalition. The Social Democrats would consider such a bond a "small revolution." This again leaves him with the Freedom Party, which he hates. The only hope for Schuessel, at the height of his political career, is to seek a majority by being more flexible, says Glauber.


In "The Washington Post," Sebastian Mallaby says Washington is pursuing a policy of "wishful thinking" regarding Afghanistan's security situation. He says over the past year, the Pentagon has deflected calls for expanded peacekeeping outside of Kabul "by promising to train an Afghan national army. Training has duly begun, but it's a painfully slow process." Fewer than 3,000 troops have been trained, which Mallaby calls "a minuscule number in a country of 22 million, where most males have access to weapons."

Mallaby says even after training, national army troops lack cohesion. The first battalion to be trained was 600 strong, but has since shrunk to half that size. "Where did the rest go?" he asks, and offers a likely answer: "A few months of training failed to conjure up a new sense of fealty to the central government. And so, once the training was completed, many returned to serve the warlords in their home regions."

Mallaby says there is "no prospect of creating an effective army in a short period...[you] cannot build national armies in a vacuum. [First,] you must bring about a sense of national identity. You must demobilize provincial armies and so eliminate rival military employers."


The "Los Angeles Times" carries an item today by correspondent Anna Politkovskaya of Russia's "Novaya gazeta," in which she says "it is the war in the North Caucasus that controls life in Russia."

The war in Chechnya, she continues, "enthrones the Kremlin leadership. It fires and appoints top-ranking officials. It cripples the judiciary to such an extent that [courts] turn into a doormat used by the authorities for their own convenience." The free press is also "being destroyed by this war."

Politkovskaya says that still, President Vladimir Putin refuses to conduct peace talks because Russia is allegedly fighting so-called "international terrorism" in the breakaway republic. She writes: "Today's regime in Russia, as personified [by] Putin, is interested only in power -- to keep it, consolidate and augment it. [All] that interests him in the war is deriving the benefit that will guarantee his re-election for a second term."

But, Politkovskaya concludes: "All wars end in peace. History has failed to come up with any other outcome. Moreover, peace [always] starts with the same thing: The warring sides, although they have killed lots of people, sit down at the negotiating table and face each other. This is what will happen in Russia too," she says. "Yet it is unclear when."


In Britain's daily "The Guardian," political geography professor David Newman of Israel's Ben Gurion University says according to opinion polls, "Israeli society has shifted significantly to the right in the past two years.... [Each] successive suicide bombing takes even more votes away from the left and puts them into [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's outstretched hands." Newman says there is now only one issue on the agenda in Israeli politics, "and that is the fight against terror."

The "alternation of terror and retaliation has replaced the peace discourse of the Oslo years," he says. Peace "is a dirty word right now and will continue to be so for as long as suicide bombings hit shopping centers, school buses, and restaurants."

Yet polls show that "while the Israeli population increasingly backs retaliation, there is still overwhelming support for a return to the negotiating table, if and when violence comes to an end. People are tired of conflict. They realize that one day there must be a Palestinian state. Those who insist on holding on to the territories for ideological reasons are in a minority, but they are able to latch on to the widespread obsession with security."

Newman says it is important for Palestinians to protest the suicide bombings. "Public opinion in Israel must see that there are people on the other side who oppose terrorism and are not afraid to raise their voices."


Gerd Hoehler in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" says Turkey's bid for EU membership is doomed to disappointment. Whoever is ready to yield to Ankara's pressure for premature entry into the EU is only supporting a widely held illusion, he says.

Although Turkey is impatiently knocking at the EU's door and insists on calling for a firm date for the beginning of accession talks at the forthcoming EU summit in Copenhagen in December, Ankara is liable to be rebuffed. Germany is not the only reluctant one, Hoehler says. The Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden have also expressed their reservations.

In fact, says Hoehler, one has to ask whether it is in Turkey's best interests to exert so much pressure. Accession talks only make sense if there is the prospect of concluding such negotiations within the foreseeable future. But this possibility is far too distant for Turkey, says Hoehler, adding that it is "wrong to foster illusions." Considering the time it will take to put the necessary democratic reforms in place and for the Turkish economy to fall in line with EU standards, Hoehler says there is no point in raising false hopes.

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