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Western Press Review: Blair's Mixed Victory On Iraq, Moscow's Grip On Kaliningrad, And Afghanistan

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several of the major Western dailies continue the debate over possible military action in Iraq, as the controversy increasingly divides popular opinion and government policy. A prolonged debate in the British Parliament yesterday brought a mixed victory for Prime Minister Tony Blair's staunch support of the hard-line U.S. position. Other topics addressed today include Moscow's grip on Kaliningrad's economic life, a United Nations report on world demographics, and staying the course to ensure stability and justice in Afghanistan.


An article by staff writer Stryker McGuire in the current issue of "Newsweek" magazine says there are now "two great divides" in Europe. One is the split between governments that are for and those that are against a war in Iraq. The other divides the multitudes of Europeans who oppose war from their leaders, many of whom support the United States in its hard-line stance on Iraq.

McGuire says the prime ministers of Britain, Spain, and Italy, among others, "are going against huge antiwar majorities" among their populations by supporting the U.S. position.

In Central and Eastern Europe, polls show "powerful opposition to war" among the public, while regional leaders pledge support for the U.S. administration. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has seen "a steady erosion of support." Three months ago, approximately half the British population supported military action without specific authorization from another UN resolution; less than 10 percent do so today.

"In Spain the story is the same," McGuire says. A recent poll in the "El Mundo" daily showed 74 percent of Spaniards are against an Iraq war, even with a UN resolution.

This "tense" situation that has ensued has many European leaders "scrambling to turn public opinion." A second UN resolution authorizing the use of force may help, says McGuire. But without one, he says the battle for public opinion may have to be won, "like the war itself, in the deserts" of Iraq.


The lead editorial in Britain's daily "The Guardian" says the debate in the British Parliament yesterday over possible military action in Iraq was characterized by "high drama and great seriousness." The House of Commons concluded by voting to accept the Labour government's motion advocating what the paper calls the "aggressive, 'last-chance' policy" embodied in the draft resolution submitted to the UN Security Council this week by Britain, the United States, and Spain.

But the paper says British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party "suffered its biggest revolt" ever when 121 Labour members of Parliament voted against their party yesterday to amend the government's motion on Iraq.

"Though wounded, the Blair government will treat the result as a green light to go along with America's intention to attack Iraq at a moment of its own choosing," the paper predicts. The members of Parliament "had a choice, and they made the wrong one," it says. "The die has been cast for a war-enabling policy. It is one which Britain may rue for many years to come."


Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" also weighs in on the debate yesterday in the House of Commons by saying it may have been Parliament's last chance to voice its opinion before troops are sent.

"When it came to the votes on the amendment and the motion," Prime Minister Tony Blair "got his way," the paper writes. "But the size of the rebellion [is] a severe dent to his authority, which can only be repaired by a successful military campaign leading to the removal of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the establishment of representative government. In the meantime, the prime minister can, perhaps, take some comfort from his critics' signal failure to come up with a convincing alternative to his policy."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Peter Savodnik writes from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Savodnik, a reporter for the "Daily Progress" in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently visited Kaliningrad on a fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea, this Russian territory has become something of a headache for the European Union. When Poland and Lithuania join the EU, expected in 2004, travel to and from Kaliningrad to Russia proper will entail transiting an EU nation, sparking concern that Kaliningrad's drug and crime problems could spill across EU borders. Russia, however, insists its citizens be allowed to freely travel throughout Russian territories. Recently the two sides agreed on granting Russians "facilitated travel documents" for transit between the territories.

But Savodnik says now, "the real Kaliningrad problem facing the EU" is that "as long as Moscow keeps a tight grip on political and economic life, Kaliningrad will stay an exporter of crime and of disease tucked into the future European Union."

Cut off from mainland Russia, Kaliningrad has more open trade with its neighbors and with the EU than with Russia. And this has given rise to fears in Moscow that the exclave may someday seek independence. "The result has been sharp resistance to any devolution of power to Kaliningrad," Savodnik says. And this interference is jeopardizing the exclave's economic progress, he says.

"There is growing frustration, even anger, with the Kremlin" in Kaliningrad, he writes. The question now is what to do "about a central government that won't let [Kaliningrad] join the rest of Europe." Savodnik says there is now an "obvious yearning among Kaliningraders [to] chart their own, unfettered course."


Claudia Ehrenstein, writing in Germany's "Die Welt," looks at the future of the world's population in light of a UN report issued yesterday. The report says the global population in the year 2050 will be reduced by 400 million, primarily due to the impact of the AIDS epidemic and lower-than-expected birth rates.

Whereas in the poorer Southern Hemisphere, countries are still struggling with high birth rates, the report says richer, northern nations are faced with falling birth rates and are instead contending with an increasing number of senior citizens.

Ehrenstein says the report makes clear that it is time to "bid farewell to the wishful thinking that one day there will be an ideal 2.1 children per mother and a fairly consistent population. There is now more movement toward a population model with extreme contradictions and increasing swings of the pendulum in both directions."

The report sends a clear message with regard to limiting the number of children born by emphasizing birth control, but Ehrenstein says "there is no experience in how to deal with an aging population."

This growing trend will force nations to review their policies on immigration, she says, perhaps allowing more immigrants in to offset declining national populations. And more children in rich countries may be the solution to states' empty social-security coffers.


A brief commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says the United States is surely fed up with North Korea's nuclear standoff, but there are no signs the U.S. intends to attack in the near future. Recent reports have indicated Pyongyang is preparing its population for a U.S. offensive. But the paper says any such preparations are a bit "premature."

The paper says Pyongyang's apparent orders for readiness do more to indicate the attitude of North Korean President Kim Jong-il, who, since he is generally cut off from international affairs, has "lost his sense of reality." And as the North Korean public has been kept in such dark isolation, "it is easy to make people believe" they are facing an imminent U.S. threat.

Kim Jong-il is talking himself into a war, the paper says, and this is "playing with fire."


In a joint contribution to "The Washington Post," Felice Gaer of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Michael Young of George Washington University's School of Law say, "An extreme and strict interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, is being nurtured in the post-Taliban era" in Afghanistan. Moreover, some of what they call "the harshest and most discriminatory elements" of sharia may end up being included in the new Afghan constitution and the judicial system.

Major abuses continue against women and girls, "apparently with the support of police and the courts." Afghanistan's chief justice endorses "amputations and other abusive corporal punishments." Coercive measures such as beatings are used by official agencies, including religious police organizations that enforce specific religious practices and require women to conform to strict codes of dress and behavior.

The authors say several "cabinet posts have gone to leaders or members of extremist groups or ruthless warlord factions," adding that some of these appointments "were made on the advice of the U.S. government."

The "groundwork is being laid in Afghanistan for a regime that may be almost as repressive as the Taliban, particularly with regard to religious freedom," write Gaer and Young. "This is occurring with consent and, in some cases, help from the United States."

Religious freedom and other human rights, "particularly for Afghan women and girls, must be guaranteed in Afghanistan's new constitution. A draft of the constitution is expected early next month [in which] women's rights reportedly are being ignored, as are equal rights for religious minorities."


In France's daily "Liberation," commentator Gerard Dupuy says that, if it were asked, the French National Assembly would probably vote overwhelmingly in favor of France using its veto right on the UN Security Council to block military action in Iraq.

It is difficult to find a precedent for such national unanimity, says Dupuy, at least about an issue of such primary importance. Even the line dividing the French public and their government representatives seems to have faded, he says, as the debates in the French National Assembly have provided a "faithful reflection of public opinion."

But Dupuy says this national "enthusiasm for peace" can also hide less honorable motivations, such as simple anti-Americanism or an attempt to slow down the movement toward a common EU foreign and security policy. There is also no doubt that the United States is able to make its displeasure well-known, he says, but this risk is consciously assessed by those supporting France's use of its veto.


In a second "Liberation" item, columnist Patric Sabatier says despite France's current national "unanimity," which he says extends from the far left to extreme right in favor of a peaceful solution on Iraq, there are issues that remain unresolved.

We can admire and approve of French President Jacques Chirac's determination not to allow the United Nations to sanction war to disarm Iraq merely based on American pressure, he says. This can increase France's political and moral influence, and contribute to the emergence of a real European power and to a more sustainable balance in world affairs.

But all this comes at a cost, Sabatier says. When it comes to a vote at the Security Council, France will have to abstain if the council votes to sanction the use of force to disarm Iraq. Or it can use its veto and suffer the consequences. But Sabatier warns it is best not to rely too much on the alliance of convenience formed with Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals, which have drawn closer together only due to their agreement on the Iraq issue.

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