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Western Press Review: Iraq's Resistance Fighters, Tajikistan's Referendum, And The Pope In The Balkans

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 23 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the Western press today discuss Pope John Paul II's weekend visit to the Balkans, where he urged reconciliation between the restive region's Christians and Muslims. Other commentary focuses on the European Union's weekend summit in Thessaloniki, Greece; Iraqi resistance to the Anglo-American occupation; the amendment to Belgian's controversial law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes indictments; Russia's embattled media sector; and Tajikistan's referendum, which yesterday paved the way for the president to serve for two more seven-year terms.


An editorial in "The New York Times" calls the European Union's summit in Thessaloniki over the weekend a "splashy, self-congratulatory" meeting that offered "the usual photo ops and rhetorical flourishes."

But the summit lacked substance, the paper says. Its most "glaring" omission was the failure to reform Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, which uses half the EU's budget and heavily subsidizes European farmers. The paper says this policy manages to "simultaneously victimize both European consumers and poor farmers in the developing world. [For] the millions of impoverished farmers worldwide who cannot compete with the rich nations' subsidized harvest, Europe's reluctance to embrace even modest reform must be disheartening."

The paper adds, "Sadly, the United States is a willing co-conspirator in this tale, betraying its supposed belief in free markets and trade with its own lavish handouts to politically powerful farm lobbies."

"The New York Times" says it is unfortunate that during their weekend discussions on EU immigration and asylum policies, Europe's leaders did not "[reflect] on how their agricultural policies contribute to the very desperation that provokes such migratory flows."

It is now clear that Europe's re-emerging Franco-German leadership "does not always act in Europe's best interests." Moreover, Paris and Berlin are definitely "not acting in the interest of the world's poorest."


"The Christian Science Monitor" discusses the resistance of Iraqi fighters to the Anglo-American occupation. The paper says some of these fighters are well-financed, organized guerrillas who are thought to be loyalists to the former regime. Others may be disgruntled former members of the now-disbanded Iraqi military, who have not been paid and who now find themselves out of work.

The paper says chief U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer has "brought more order to the coalition occupation and the delivery of services. But Mr. Bremer has also created uncertainty about when Iraqis will be allowed to shoulder some of the responsibility of government." The paper says Bremer must soon publicly address this issue.

The U.S. administration is now reconsidering its policy of not paying Iraq's former soldiers, and is considering incorporating them into a new Iraqi police force. The Boston daily says this is "a step in the right direction, but U.S. officials must do more to identify competent Iraqis and involve them in decision making. The sooner Iraqis become the public face of government, the sooner at least some of the resentment that fuels guerrilla warfare will dissipate."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reacts to a decision yesterday by the Belgian government to make changes to its law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes, which could theoretically be used to target U.S. President George W. Bush and other prominent global figures.

The amendments would reduce the 1993 law's ambitions of having a global reach, which allowed charges to be brought regardless of where war crimes took place. It is essential, says the paper, for nations -- especially EU members -- "to adapt their laws so that war criminals, acts of genocide, and crimes against humanity are tried in a place independent of where the crimes were perpetrated. Such a system can only function when the indictable offenses can be prosecuted anywhere."

The paper says the Belgians have now realized it is wrong to "cry genocide" whenever a war is waged or to try to hold the politicians involved personally and criminally responsible. The paper says such attempts would undermine the aims of a viable, working international war crimes tribunal and help no one but the war criminals.


Writing in "The Daily Telegraph," Harry de Quetteville says Pope John Paul II's speech during his one-day visit to the Bosnian Serb city of Banja Luka was "a significant attempt to soothe the bitter enmity which has long set Bosnia's Serbian Orthodox believers at odds with their mostly Croat Roman Catholic counterparts." The pope spoke in front of 50,000 worshippers yesterday on his second visit to Bosnia, having visited the capital Sarajevo in 1997.

The official reason given for the pope's visit was to beatify Ivan Merz, a Bosnian Catholic who took a vow of celibacy in the early 1900s and devoted his life to the church. Beatification is the last hurdle before sainthood; Merz would be Bosnia's first Catholic saint.

But the pope sparked controversy when the Franciscan Petricevac monastery was chosen as the sight for the beatification ceremony. Petricevac was for a time the home of the notorious Friar Tomislav Pilipovic Majstorovic, known as Fra Sotona, or Brother Satan. This Franciscan friar led the Croatian forces of the Nazi-allied Ustashe regime on a 1942 rampage through Banja Luka, killing over 2,500 of the town's Serbian residents.

The monastery was destroyed by Serbian forces during the Bosnian war but has since been rebuilt. The choice of location was viewed by some as an affront, and Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pavle notably declined to attend the pope's ceremony yesterday.


An editorial in "The Irish Times" says Pope John Paul II's appeal for God's forgiveness for the "sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom, also by the children of the Catholic Church," was a "thinly veiled" reference to a 1942 slaughter in Banja Luka that was led by a Franciscan friar. Speaking of that tragedy as well as events of the past decade in the former Yugoslavia, the pope said, "Only in a climate of true reconciliation will the memory of so many innocent victims and their sacrifice not be in vain, but encourage everyone to build up new relationships of fraternity and dignity."

The 83-year-old pope's visit yesterday was his 101st mission overseas.


France's "Le Monde" discusses Tajikistan's weekend referendum in which citizens voted to amend the constitution to allow President Imomali Rakhmonov to run for two more seven-year terms when his current mandate finishes in 2006. The amendment would potentially allow Rakhmonov to stay in power until 2020, which "Le Monde" says was the actual goal of the referendum.

The paper says there was little doubt as to the outcome of the vote. It also notes that officials from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were notified of the referendum only belatedly, and as a result did not have a chance to send observers. Like the dubious claims made in other votes throughout the Central Asian region, in only two hours Tajik authorities had declared the validity of the referendum, claiming to have achieved a 53 percent turnout. A little later, a 71 percent turnout was announced. (Final turnout was reported at 96.4 percent.)

"Le Monde" says the vote also served to divide Rakhmonov's political opposition. The main opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which led an armed resistance against the regime from 1992 to 1997, declared that it would take part in the referendum in the interests "of peace and stability." Only one of the six main Tajik parties, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, openly called for a boycott of the referendum.


Writing in "The New York Times," Steven Lee Myers says as election season approaches, Russian politicians "have launched a preemptive attack on the rollicking, aggressive and at [times] corrupt political coverage by the nation's newspapers and television and radio stations."

The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, voted "overwhelmingly" last week to amend Russian campaign laws "to allow the authorities to shut down news organizations for campaign coverage deemed to be biased." These new restrictions would, for the first time, punish news outlets for supporting a particular candidate, for editorializing on a policy, or for "[reporting] critically on questions of character" unrelated to the candidate's occupation. A first violation would result in a fine, a second could result in suspending the publication for the remainder of the campaign.

Myers says the new restrictions, which still must be approved by the upper house, the Federation Council, "raise questions not only about freedom of the press, but also about the fairness of elections in a country still struggling to establish basic democratic norms."

Following the lower house's vote, Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said the Media Ministry would closely monitor whether news organizations were providing the same amount of airtime and column inches to all candidates.

Critics of the amendment say it will encourage self-censorship in the press and deny Russians access to basic information. Supporters of the measure claim it was necessary to protect political candidates from "scurrilous" reporting.

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