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Western Press Review: Taylor Steps Down, NATO Takes Over In Afghanistan, And The Kremlin Tries To Control Public Polling

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the discussion in major dailies centers on Liberia, where President Charles Taylor is to step down today. Some observers are hoping that Taylor's resignation and the arrival of a Nigeria-led multinational stabilization force that will help end 14 years of civil war in the country.

We also take a look today at the NATO takeover of peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan; the Kremlin's attempts to undermine public opinion polling in Russia; and -- in the words of one American newspaper -- the "embarrassment" that is the U.S. occupation-run television station in Iraq.


President Charles Taylor of Liberia is to step down today, after presiding over years of civil war in the West African country. U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly called for Taylor's resignation and the UN has indicted him for war crimes committed during the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Founded in 1847 by freed American slaves wishing to return to Africa, Liberia has experienced ongoing civil strife between loyalists and competing rebel factions over the last 14 years.

Taylor will be replaced by his vice president, Moses Blah, although some rebel factions have already voiced opposition to this succession. A Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting LLC) analysis says although fighting between pro-Taylor loyalist forces and the rebels is now winding down, battles between competing rebel factions are likely in Liberia's future. Stratfor says the "two rebel factions -- Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) -- as well as the remaining government forces will vie for political power and revenue sources such as the illicit diamond trade, timber concessions, and the international shipping registry."

The international community, in the form of the United Nations or a U.S.-led peacekeeping force, will likely push for national reconciliation and the reintegration of the rebels in a reconstituted Liberian military. Cooperation will at first be difficult, Stratfor says, but a negotiating role played by the United States may aid reconciliation efforts. Nigeria, the dominant regional power, is also expected to play a major policing role in post-Taylor Liberia.


In a contribution today, economist and former Liberian Finance Minister Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says Liberia's first multiparty elections in 1985 saw the military "[stuffing] ballot boxes and burning ballots." Sergeant Samuel Doe, who had seized power in a 1980 coup, declared himself the winner. And Sirleaf says, "Liberian's hopes were dashed by American recognition of the results."

Liberia has slowly "degenerated into a violent free-for-all," she writes. "Had the United States respected the will of Liberia's voters in 1985, we would not be in the desperate straits we are today. The failure to challenge Doe's electoral fraud discredited the democratic process and paved the way for an increasingly brutal competition for power."

And today, as Liberian peace talks continue in Accra, Ghana, the United States is downgrading its participation in the negotiations. "This is a mistake," Sirleaf says. As the U.S. administration should have learned in Iraq, military intervention "is often the easy part. The political process that follows -- call it 'nation building' if you will -- can be much tougher."

If U.S. intervention "does not get the politics right, any military intervention will be doomed to failure." Sirleaf says hope must be returned to Liberia's people. Then institutions must be rebuilt "to ensure accountability and transparency; restructure the economic system so that it is no longer dominated by a small elite; conduct a national dialogue; and then hold elections that bring to an end our tragic tradition of rule by strongmen."


A "New York Times" editorial soundly criticizes the U.S. occupation's efforts to run a television station in Iraq. "If democracy is ever going to flourish in Iraq, one element will have to be lively, independent news media, professionally operated by Iraqis and featuring a broad range of political viewpoints," the paper says. New Iraqi media in many forms is currently proliferating, although "their quality and credibility are far from ideal." Likewise, the paper calls the television station run by the American occupation in Iraq "an embarrassment."

The paper says, "Since television is something America is good at, one might have expected that at least this part of the occupation would run smoothly." But so far, the Iraqi Media Network, "run by a Pentagon contractor, has been a $5 million a month dud." Iraqis "do not watch it," and view its programming as "repetitive and larded with official propaganda." This is not what Iraqis want to see on TV "after years of state television under Saddam Hussein."

"The New York Times" says the Iraqi Media Network's programming efforts could be improved by new equipment, more "compelling" programs, and freedom from what it calls the "meddlesome oversight" of "coalition authority bureaucrats." It says, "Occupation television is not going to be very effective at spurring Iraqi news outlets to become more professional until it starts broadcasting livelier news shows and generating some enthusiasm among Iraqi viewers."


In a contribution today, Thomas Melia of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and Brian Katulis of the National Democratic Institute, discuss the findings of recent focus groups in Iraq. Small groups of Iraqi men and women of all ages and religions were brought together to discuss their aspirations for Iraq. The research was conducted in the hope of eventually conveying their desires to officials in charge of reconstruction.

One key finding, say the authors, was the "deep skepticism" Iraqis have of the sources of information. "Though scores of publications and broadcasters are appearing, many Iraqis told us [that] they rely on 'friends and neighbors' for their news."

A quarter-century of propaganda from Saddam Hussein's Baghdad still lives on in the minds of many people, say the researchers. Anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiment remains widespread. But "even more troubling" is the common belief that current instability in Iraq is a part of the U.S. plan. Where American observers see incompetence and poor planning, Iraqis see deliberate intent. Finally, most Iraqis think the U.S. got involved in Iraq for its own interests -- namely oil.

Researchers Melia and Katulis suggest U.S. forces and the Iraqi Governing Council should "set up better feedback mechanisms" so the Iraqi people "can make their concerns and complaints known." New initiatives should be framed "as responses to Iraqi desires," and the people should be better informed "about how to engage in democratic politics."


Writing in "The Moscow Times," Matt Bivens, a writer with the U.S. publication "The Nation," discusses the Kremlin's takeover of what he calls Russia's "most respected scientific polling agency," the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). Bivens explains that VTsIOM receives no budget money from the Kremlin, funding itself instead from polling contracts from the private sector. But technically, VTsIOM remains a state-owned agency, and soon will "get a new board, made up of officials from the cabinet and the presidential administration. None of VTsIOM's sociologists has been invited to join it. And the board will decide what sort of questions to ask from now on."

Yet the Kremlin's takeover of VTsIOM has received "precious little" attention, he says. The move is seen as the latest in a string of attempts by the administration of President Vladimir Putin to gain control of Russia's independent media sector. But Bivens says the push to gain control over public polling is "a new and deeper level of pathology. It's one thing to try to control the airwaves," he says. "It's something entirely new to try to control study of what a populace thinks -- even after it's spoon-fed information by state-manipulated media."


An item in France's daily "Le Monde" discusses the takeover today of Afghanistan's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by NATO. The 4,600-strong ISAF brings together servicemen from 30 countries, 15 of which are members of the Atlantic alliance. Since its creation in December 2001, the security force has operated under British, Turkish, and German-Dutch command. Germany and the Netherlands ceded their joint mandate to NATO today in a ceremony in Kabul.

The French daily says the involvement of NATO forces is Afghan peacekeeping should relaunch the debate over extending security operations beyond Kabul to the provinces. NATO is not averse to extending its operations beyond the capital, but NATO spokesman Mark Laity says the first priority for NATO troops is to settle in and begin fulfilling their current mandate rather than trying to expand it.

But "Le Monde" says 21 months after the fall of the Taliban, insecurity prevails in many Afghan provinces. An international coalition of 12,500 soldiers remains engaged in combat operations with Taliban elements, Al-Qaeda allies, and other antigovernment groups. Members of the security forces emphasize it will be necessary to establish safety in the provinces ahead of elections in June 2004. But some say it is unrealistic to expect an expansion of the ISAF in accordance with what is really needed, namely up to 10,000 more troops.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" in an editorial also discusses the NATO mission in Afghanistan, saying while the alliance took a hit earlier in the year during the contentious debate on war in Iraq, today, "[for] the first time in its 54 years, the alliance will act outside Europe, marking a historic as well as strategic watershed."

The editorial suggests that, "After Kabul, the logical next step for NATO is Baghdad. The alliance quickly pacified Muslim Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and this summer it helped the Poles put together their multinational contingent for Iraq." NATO, it says, is "a successful military organization with a supreme commander who answers to the U.S. president. [Its] deployment would demonstrate that the leading democracies of the world again stand united. No stronger message could be sent to future Saddam [Hussein]s or [Osama] bin Ladens."


"The New York Times" in an editorial today says the U.S. administration "initially failed to provide Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, with the help he desperately needed to rebuild his country's economy and institutions, undermining one of America's first and most important accomplishments in the war on terrorism. Fortunately, the White House is now considering a more generous approach."

The paper says the U.S. Defense Department spends $10 billion a year on the 9,000 U.S. troops fighting Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. Yet the administration "has spent less than $1 billion on reconstruction so far, although Congress has authorized much more."

The paper says with the attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States "paid a terrible price for not doing more to stabilize Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s." America "cannot afford to repeat that mistake."