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Western Press Review: Lithuania's EU Vote, Chechnya, And Seeking Honesty Among Allies

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 13 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today's major Western dailies discuss Lithuania's referendum on European Union membership and the votes to come in the rest of the Baltics, the U.S. administration's "diplomatic war" in the Mideast, Russia's ongoing military campaign in Chechnya, and honesty issues between the trans-Atlantic allies, among other topics.


On 10-11 May, an "impressive" 90 percent of Lithuanian voters approved entry into the European Union, according to preliminary results published yesterday. Voter turnout was estimated at 63.3 percent.

An Economist Intelligence Unit analysis says these results offer some encouragement for what can be expected when Latvia and Estonia hold their own EU referendums on 14 and 20 September, respectively.

All three Baltic states will benefit from membership through improved economic opportunities and EU aid, but some voters are "uneasy at the prospect of [membership] in a union dominated by large powers" and over being subordinate to Brussels, as they once were to Moscow. Anti-EU farmers and other Euroskeptics comprise a significant block in all three nations.

Latvian public opinion favors EU membership by slightly more than 50 percent, but there is concern that September's vote may not meet the 50 percent turnout required to validate the referendum. Estonian opinion polls are "more encouraging," and mandatory voter turnout is well below 50 percent.

"While fears of losing hard- and recently won sovereignty [may] prompt Estonian and Latvian voters to hesitate in backing EU membership, the Baltic experience inside the Soviet Union [has] impressed upon the region's titular populations and governments the need to embed their countries fully into Western structures."

The analysis observes that "[to] a greater extent than all other candidates, the Baltic states are pursuing EU membership for security reasons as well as for political and economic advantage." And this consideration "may well prove decisive come September."


"Pragmatism has paid off," declares a commentary in the Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" discussing the weekend referendum in Lithuania, in which the public voted strongly in favor of joining the European Union.

The paper says the 63.3 percent voter turnout proved to be a pleasant surprise for the political establishment, and indicates that the Lithuanian people take EU membership earnestly.

Lithuanian membership is but a tiny tile in the complicated EU mosaic, the paper says. Yet it is also "a milestone," for this country was not just under the influence, but an actual part of, the former Soviet Union before it regained its independence.

To describe the referendum as a "historic moment" may sound like a platitude, but considering Lithuania's struggle to win sovereignty from mighty Russia, the fact that the country is again willing to voluntarily surrender a portion of its independence for Europe's future does constitute a momentous occasion. The paper says this willingness is undoubtedly more significant in Vilnius's case than when the same decision is made by other capitals.

There is, of course, an awareness of the fundamental difference between forced dependence on Moscow or voluntarily submitting -- in part -- to Brussels.

The Swiss editorial says the positive attitude shown by Lithuanians toward EU entry will no doubt send a signal to other potential EU members to vote "yes" in their own upcoming referendums on membership.


An editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor" says the recent "war victories in Iraq and Afghanistan were the easy parts of the U.S. antiterror campaign, compared with the diplomatic war just launched" by U.S. President George W. Bush.

The "road map" unveiled in May as a possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would "thus end an incentive for anti-American action by militant Arabs," is not going particularly well, the paper says.

"Israel hasn't accepted the road map as is," and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to "deal directly with President Bush next week in hopes of adding conditions to the U.S. plan." The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, "would rather criticize Israel than take steps like reducing official invective against Jews and Zionism, or collecting weapons from Palestinian militants."

If the U.S. president really wants to make progress on the Mideast peace process, the paper says he will "need to make sure both Israeli and Palestinian leaders take major steps in tandem, as the road map outlines, rather than letting one side wait for the other side to act."

Bush "may be reluctant to force Israel to stop expansion of Jewish settlements or even dismantle some." But the paper says taking firm steps in this "diplomatic war" is just as necessary as taking decisive military action was in America's other recent campaigns.


Writing in "The New York Times," Islamic affairs analyst Olivier Roy discusses the continuing misgivings being felt on both sides of the Atlantic toward erstwhile allies divided over the war in Iraq.

Roy says: "To understand the problem, one has to consider what the Europeans were presented with in the build-up to war. [The] basic problem was that Washington's stated war goals were not logically coherent, and its more intellectually compelling arguments were usually played down or denied."

The officially cited U.S. war objectives were to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, fight terrorism, and liberate the Iraqi people. Europe responded by saying Iraq had no operational weapons of mass destruction, that no link between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda had been proved, "and, yes, Saddam Hussein was a bloody tyrant, but who decided not to finish him off in 1991?"

For many in "old Europe," says Roy, the conspicuous holes in the official U.S. argument "gave rise to suspicion that there was a hidden agenda." In fact, he says, "there had always been a not-so-hidden agenda" -- that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was America's biggest foreign concern, and that stalemate could be surmounted "only if the overall existing order in the Middle East is shaken up first."

This agenda should have been communicated, Roy says. "At least then the real issues could have been debated." For Europe "[to] join a coalition means, at the very least, being told about the whole strategy and not just being enlisted blindly in battle."


Writing in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," analyst Frank Nienhuysen discusses an attack in Chechnya yesterday in which a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives into an administrative compound in Znamenskoe, northwest of Grozny, causing the deaths of at least 54 people and injuries to some 300.

In March, Moscow had been lauding the results of a controversial constitutional referendum in Chechnya, suggesting that the vote bode well for the prospect of stability returning to the breakaway republic.

However, says Nienhuysen, the situation is "as bitter as ever," evidenced by the latest violence. And the separatists are not alone to blame. Russian secret service units and the army, he says, are responsible for disappearances, tortures, rapes, and murders of numerous civilians. The Russian armed forces and authorities, says the commentary, "have done nothing but create chaos and anger, instead of rebuilding and establishing peace." The locals have reacted by setting up guerrilla forces, thus contributing to the dangerous atmosphere.

It is now up to Moscow to eliminate this "hotbed of rebellion," says Nienhuysen. The Kremlin must guarantee a corruption-free rebuilding of the country and negotiate with the moderate rebels, as well as act resolutely against the criminal elements in its own army. As long as Russian President Vladimir Putin only has the state authorities on his side and does not win the confidence of the Chechen people, the war will soon progress into its fifth year.


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" accuses Russia directly of terrorism. It notes the recent G-8 meeting in Paris again condemned world terrorism, which the Kremlin believes includes the separatist rebels in Chechnya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin finds it easy to present the situation as an illegal revolt against a legitimate ruler. By assuming that Chechnya rightly belongs under the authority of Moscow, the paper says, Putin portrays the rebellion as an internal Russian affair. The Kremlin explained yesterday's bomb attack as an attempt "to torpedo a peaceful path toward a new order in a destroyed land, instead of as a consequence of the terrorist regime Moscow installed in Grozny."

As long as this situation persists, violence is bound to spiral out of control, the paper says, and Chechnya will become a breeding ground for exactly what much of the world is trying to combat -- terrorism.


An item in "Le Monde" notes that yesterday's suicide attack in Chechnya was the first on its scale since a controversial 23 March constitutional referendum that declared the breakaway republic would remain within the Russian Federation. The attack, which targeted an administrative building of the Russian secret service (FSB) and the Chechen police, left 54 dead and more than 300 wounded. Dozens more are still missing, and the official death toll is expected to rise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted immediately to the tragedy, asking his ministers to speed up the preparation of a draft agreement delineating the authorities of the Russian Federation and the Chechen leadership. At the time of the referendum, Moscow promised Chechnya "broad autonomy" and a division of powers between the Kremlin and Grozny, as well as a major withdrawal of Russian troops.

Some Russian officials blamed Aslan Maskhadov, the president of the separatist Chechen leadership, for the attack, accusing him of having links to Al-Qaeda. But a Maskhadov spokesperson denied any connection, and once again condemned using violent methods of resistance.

"Le Monde" says this latest attack "shows that Moscow, which has maintained some 80,000 troops in the separatist republic [since] October 1999, still does not control the situation on the ground, despite the 'political process' that the Kremlin claims to have [begun]" with the March referendum.

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