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Western Press Review: Renewing U.S. Missile Defense, Evicting Chechen Refugees, Plavsic's Confession

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Topics discussed in the Western media today include the announcement yesterday by the U.S. administration that it plans to implement a limited missile defense shield by 2004, the reformist movement in Iran, Russia's shifting strategy in Central Asia, Moscow's decision to evict thousands of Chechen refugees from camps in Ingushetia, the Iraqi declaration on its weapons programs, and the confession of former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic for responsibility for crimes against humanity.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today says developing "a workable missile defense system that could thwart a nuclear attack from a reckless country like North Korea is clearly in America's national interest. But rushing to construct a system based on the present unreliable technology seems premature." The paper suggests it would "make more sense to perfect a functional system and only then begin construction."

Recent developments in the global arena have refocused attention on the threat posed by long-range missiles. The latest announcements from North Korea "have made clear that Pyongyang may already have nuclear weapons and cannot be counted on to continue honoring its current freeze on long-range missile testing."

Even so, says the editorial, no changes on the international stage "can alter the reality that the Pentagon does not yet have a missile-defense technology reliable enough to protect American cities. Three of the last eight tests of the ground-based defensive system have failed, including one just last week."

"The New York Times" says, "For now, at least, other means must be found for coping with the North Korean threat." Deploying missile interceptors in Alaska "is likely to cost billions of dollars that would be better spent on testing and other defense needs."


In contrast, an analysis in the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal" lauds the technological improvements made to missile-defense systems, saying even the system's "initial capabilities [can] only be deemed spectacular when compared with where the U.S. stood barely a year ago."

The paper says this past year has brought several "technological successes in numerous missile-defense programs, [including] ground-based and sea-based defenses, the advanced Patriot anti-missile system, and sensors located on land, at sea and in space." Moreover, says the analysis, the U.S. is developing an airborne laser, expected to be ready soon after 2004, that it says "is extremely promising for shooting down enemy missiles in the boost phase, that is, not long after their launch."

But the paper goes on to say perhaps "the most remarkable achievement [has] been in anti-missile diplomacy." When the United States decided unilaterally to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia a year ago, many U.S. allies and others warned of the beginning of a new arms race. But the paper says the world has since "moved from a world in which most U.S. allies were grumbling [to] one in which they are eager to be part of a U.S.-led missile defense system."


In "The Washington Post," columnist Anne Applebaum says that, unlike U.S. support for Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War, America's support for the fomenting reformist student revolt in Iran has been "remarkably tepid, despite students' quiet efforts to get help."

Iran, she says, "is beginning to look a lot like Poland in the 1980s, when student protests, worker strikes and underground media helped create the conditions that led to the collapse of communism." But in this case, millions of U.S. dollars in aid are not flowing to Tehran, nor has the U.S. president made strong public statements in favor of the reformers.

As to the reasons for America's inconsistent reactions to these two reformist movements, Applebaum says, "Caution, distance and the inability of anyone in Washington to focus on more than one Middle Eastern dictatorship at a time provide most of the explanation."

She adds that U.S. officials also cite "the history of perceived American meddling in Iran" as a reason to avoid involvement in this case. "It seems they don't want to contaminate [Iran's] genuine democratic revolution by tarring it with the imprimatur of the Great Satan," as the United States has at times been characterized by the Iranian clerical leadership.

Yet the U.S. need not offer overt help, Applebaum suggests. She says support could instead flow "through church, ethnic and labor organizations," or private contributions.


Michael Stuermer of "Die Welt" takes a closer look at the 12,000-page nuclear dossier submitted in accordance with UN Resolution 1441 more than a week ago (7 December). The dossier details Iraq's civilian activities that could have military uses but denies the possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Stuermer says the report contains what the U.S. administration describes as "lies," but adds that it also contains some "embarrassing secrets." As a result, the copies of the report being circulated among the nonpermanent members of the Security Council do not include passages listing the names and corporations from around the world who, either on purpose or inadvertently, assisted with Iraq's attempts to build weapons of mass destruction.

Germany was no exception. Until the Gulf War in 1990, Baghdad was considered a friend of the West, or at least the lesser evil compared with Iran's ayatollahs. UN inspections in 1998 found that some of Iraq's machines and equipment were branded: "Made in Germany."

Stuermer says it is amazing that the German government has expressed its nonsolidarity with Washington on its Iraq policy while suppressing the knowledge of these deliveries. He says considering Germany's generous help to Iraq in the past, "psychological and political pressure should be exerted on Berlin." Berlin would be well advised to support the wishes of the United States, Turkey, and Britain in rallying to the cause of ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Stuermer suggests.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" today notes that in the aftermath of the October hostage crisis in a Moscow theater, Russia has stepped up its so-called "sweeps" in Chechnya -- which regularly result in the "disappearances" of civilians -- as well as other military operations, bringing even "more misery to Chechnya's people."

Moreover, Russian forces "have resumed efforts to force thousands of Chechen refugees out of camps in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, even as winter takes hold in the region." The paper warns, "Unless it can be stopped, this cruel operation will produce a humanitarian catastrophe."

The editorial cites figures from international relief agencies estimating about 110,000 Chechen refugees are currently in Ingushetia, "of whom 18,000 to 20,000 are living in tent cities." Russian President Vladimir Putin is forcing them to return "to restore the appearance of normality to Chechnya. But as much as Moscow would like to pretend otherwise, the war in the province is not over, and most of the refugees prefer the misery of camps to the insecurity of their ruined homeland."

The paper says forcing their return "would be a clear violation of international law, and a new low in Mr. Putin's failing campaign to force Chechnya to accept continued rule by Russia." The paper calls on the world's governments to insist that Putin halt the deportations, "and quickly -- before any more families are forced into the cold."


In the "Financial Times," columnist Quentin Peel looks at the slow process of democratization in Russia. The emergence of the market economy has been "a long and painful process," he says. More than a decade after state ownership began to devolve, "control of vast swaths of the economy -- including most of the oil industry -- remains in the hands of absurdly wealthy oligarchs who exploited their connections faster than anyone else." As for the Russian media sector, Peel says it is "usually for sale to the highest bidder."

The term "democracy already has a bad name in Russia, so soon after the collapse of communism." The very idea "is struggling to survive." What Peel calls "would-be democrats," as well as politicians "who emerged in those exhilarating days of glasnost and perestroika," are today "fighting a rearguard action for their principles."

Peel says, "What ordinary Russians see as failed economic reforms, and the misery of daily life in the provinces, have tarnished [the] reputation" of the political parties they lead today.

Peel says some of the problem is what he calls Russia's "top-down dilemma." High-level orders issued through the bureaucracy to those below "seems to be the only way to make anything work in the country. Yet real democracy will flourish only if it grows from the bottom up," beginning with the people. But today, "there are still terribly few ordinary people who believe in it."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Stefan Ulrich says former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic "is helping her people" by admitting her crimes at The Hague and appealing to others to pursue a radical change in policy.

Plavsic's acknowledgement of her responsibility for crimes against humanity for the persecution of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the 1992-95 conflict -- which left 200,000 dead or missing -- may be sincere, or perhaps that would be "too good to be true." Or maybe, Ulrich, says, there is such a thing as "a genuine change of heart."

It is difficult to determine whether this is a calculated approach aimed at reducing her sentence or a genuine attitude change, he says. But more important will be the impact this trial will have on others -- those guilty of such crimes, their victims, and on The Hague tribunal itself.

For The Hague, says Ulrich, Plavsic's contrition "is a windfall," since the tribunal has long been waiting for one of those chiefly responsible for the atrocities in the Balkans to admit to such crimes. Until now, the tribunal has made little headway with the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, or Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic, who remain at large.

Now, Ulrich says, Plavsic's testimony "is not only providing valuable inside evidence against other chief indictees, it is also lending the tribunal legitimacy."


In the regional daily "Eurasia View," Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation looks at the recent Russian deployment of military aircraft to the Kant air base on Kyrgyzstan. The United States similarly keeps troops at Kyrgyzstan's nearby Manas air base to assist in operations for its "war on terrorism." According to some analysts, Russia's deployment comes in response to the increased U.S. presence in the Central Asian region, which has traditionally been under Moscow's influence.

But Cohen says the muted U.S. reaction to the 5 December announcement that Russia was mobilizing indicates a strategic shift, that Washington "no longer views Russian military maneuvers through a competitive lens." The "old thinking" of "traditional Russian military defensiveness [also seems] to coexist with a new emphasis on partnership with the United States." Moreover, Cohen cites one analyst as saying Washington and Moscow may be emerging as a joint alternative to possible Chinese hegemony.

But ultimately, Cohen suggests, such conventional deployments "do [not] harness the intelligence and special-forces capability that countries need to fight stateless foes such as Al-Qaeda. To truly battle terrorism, American and Russian leaders must support broad extra-military strategies designed to promote political participation, civil society and the rule of law." And on this score, he says, both the American deployment in Kyrgyzstan and the new Russian outpost "seem unlikely to provide fresh answers any time soon."


An item in France's daily "Le Monde" also discusses the announcement yesterday that the United States will implement a limited version of its missile-defense shield beginning in 2004. But according to some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the project, tests of the system have not taken place under realistic conditions, in which opponents might use decoys to throw the system off track.

The paper says the limited system now planned should supply some protection over the territory of the United States against a small number of missiles loaded with nuclear, chemical, or biological agents. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that it will also act as a deterrent against attack. The new system should thus address some of the new threats faced by the world.

But U.S. military planners have an extremely ambitious task ahead of them, says the newspaper. The U.S. administration is calling for ground-based rockets to "kill" enemy rockets by striking them either after launch or in mid-flight, as well as for interception systems for missiles launched at sea, by plane, or by satellite.

As expected, Russia and China have expressed their opposition to the U.S. administration's decision. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the United States should make its new strategic cooperation with Russia a security priority instead of pursuing the development of "strategic arms that threaten to destabilize global relations."

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