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Western Press Review: Unrest And Revelry In The Caucasus, Poland Honors Its Insurgents, And The Balkans' 'Forgotten' People

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of today's press commentary begins with a look at the Caucasus on the one-year anniversary of the abduction of a Dutch humanitarian aid worker in Daghestan. Arjan Erkel of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) is believed to be alive and still in detention. We also take a look at how Abkhazia is preparing to celebrate 10 years of separation from Georgia. Another anniversary was commemorated last week in Poland, as Warsaw celebrated its 1944 uprising against Germany, the largest-ever insurgency in Nazi-occupied Europe. Persistent shortages and unrest in Iraq are also discussed, as is NATO's new mission in Afghanistan.


One year ago today, Dutch humanitarian aid worker Arjan Erkel was kidnapped in the Russian Caucasus, reportedly while two Russian security officers idly looked on. A "Washington Post" editorial today says as recent videotapes indicate Erkel is alive and still being held captive, his continued detention "reflects poorly on Russian President Vladimir Putin most of all, but also on U.S. and European leaders" who, for their own political reasons, "have been less than zealous" in their attempts to secure Erkel's release. "The ultimate victims of this neglect, in addition to Mr. Erkel and his family, are the long-suffering civilian victims of Russia's war in Chechnya and civilians elsewhere who depend on the free passage of aid workers."

Because of pressures from the Putin government and the dangers in Chechnya, "few journalists dare" report on the war. Erkel's organization, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), "is one of the last humanitarian organizations [to] bear witness to their suffering." The daily says this "suggests one possible motivation for the reported complicity of parts of Russia's security bureaucracy in the kidnapping. It also may explain why the government has not been more active in seeking Mr. Erkel's release: As long as the region is so dangerous to outsiders, none can testify to the rapes, torture and disappearances that Chechens continue to suffer at the hands of Russian forces."

The war drags on, and yet European and American governments -- seeking Putin's cooperation on other issues -- "barely mention the humanitarian disaster unfolding" in the Caucasus.


In this regional daily, journalist Troy Etulain notes that the self-declared autonomous republic of Abkhazia is getting ready to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its break from Georgia on 30 September. While the breakaway republic has never been officially recognized and struggles with widespread economic malaise, Etulain says there has been "a long-desired spike in economic activity, largely in anticipation of the anniversary."

Progress in the province has proceeded haltingly, but some reforms have taken root. A year ago, mobile phone connections were established throughout much of Abkhazia; modern gas stations proliferate, although demand continues to outweigh supply. Etulain suggests "a more potent and immediate" economic boost could come from augmenting relations with Russia. "For several years," he says, "Russian tourists have traveled down the coast to Abkhazia in the summer" while every fall Abkhaz students attend school in the Russian port city of Sochi.

"Now, economic ties are becoming more formal," Etulain says. "Repairs to schools and to trade routes [would] change the [capital Sukhumi's] complexion more meaningfully than the anniversary celebrations can. Despite the anniversary fanfare, road police still [block] traffic to and from the city. They are enforcing a tacit nighttime curfew, evidence of a conflict that remains unsettled and a constant threat of violence...[In] this unsettled environment, glittering hotels and raucous music may not shine as brightly or as long as some would hope."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" columnist Matthew Kaminski discusses Poland's annual commemoration of the young men and women of the Polish Home Army (AK). On 1 August 1944 at 17:00, the AK "launched the largest insurgency in German-occupied Europe."

Kaminski says the Home Army, "answering to the government-in-exile in London, launched the uprising, in part, to liberate Warsaw before or concurrently with the Red Army so as to not leave Poland's postwar fate to [the] mercies" of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The movement became a "tragic failure," ending "after 63 days of fighting the Germans while the Red Army looked on impassively." Stalin encouraged the uprising, but "then refused to let his troops or the Western allies give any aid." The Allies, "wanting to keep [Stalin] happy," gave no help to the Poles -- although Polish soldiers had earlier fought over London to liberate Paris and Italy. Warsaw was left to fight the Germans alone.

Neither a sense of "morality nor the Allies saved the Poles that year," Kaminski writes. Adolf Hitler "ordered Warsaw razed," and the Home Army was "annihilated."

Kaminski muses that it is this history, in part, that informs Polish foreign policy today. Perhaps Warsaw has concluded that "Freedom can't be taken for granted; it must be defended. Hence Poland's unfashionable, in much of today's Europe, belief in a close alliance with America. Hence, its equally unfashionable commitment to NATO, not least since its neighborhood isn't yet stable."


The lead editorial in the British daily "The Guardian" says a third day of stone-throwing yesterday in front of British military headquarters in Al-Basra is testament to the popular resentment brewing in Iraq. The inability of occupying forces to restore essential supplies of water and fuel shows that "postwar planners in Washington and London have failed massively to anticipate the situation."

"The Guardian" says while coalition spokesmen "routinely try to shift the blame for these shortages" onto the mismanagement wrought by Saddam Hussein's regime, it should not have been hard "to anticipate that an already overloaded system would collapse under the strain of a new war."

But the answer to the persistent shortages is not "simply to crank up oil production for export" to generate revenue, "which has been a top priority so far." What is needed is a two-pronged emergency program, says the paper. First, stockpiles must be replenished by importing the needed fuels, "without waiting until Iraq can pay for them through its own exports of heavy fuel oil." Second, funds must be made available -- "and bureaucratic logjams freed as well" -- to repair vital equipment, particularly that for generating electricity and water purification and distribution. These are immediate needs, the paper says, that "will not wait."


Judy Dempsey of the "Financial Times" discusses NATO's new mission in Afghanistan, which commenced yesterday and is the alliance's first-ever operation outside of Europe. She cites German Lieutenant-General Goetz Gliemeroth, who will command the mission, as saying the operation will only be complete when the Afghan authorities are in a position to establish security for themselves. Dempsey remarks that, "Past experience in the Balkans, where NATO still has troops seven years after they were first deployed, has taught the alliance not to give any firm dates for possible exit strategies." Commanders yesterday openly stated NATO was in Afghanistan "for the long haul."

Dempsey says for the past several months, the government in Kabul feared the U.S. and Europe "would become distracted by the war in Iraq at the expense of leaving parts of Afghanistan vulnerable to the diktat of warlords." Kabul itself "is not yet secure enough" for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or NATO troops "to consider shifting troops to the provinces."

But for NATO, the Afghan operation "could define the future of the Western defense alliance." Marginalized by Washington after the 11 September attacks, "it now seems to be finding a new sense of [purpose].... Before the Iraq war, NATO was riven by divisions between its 19 member countries. But there has been a unanimity over supporting NATO's role in Afghanistan."


An analysis by Belgrade-based journalist Jean-Arnault Derens in the monthly "Le Monde Diplomatique" discusses what he calls the "forgotten people of the Balkans." A decade of conflict in the region "has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and created millions of refugees," he says. And always the smaller social groups in the region "are the forgotten victims, crushed between rival nationalisms of major ethnic groups."

Yugoslav federalism initially disassociated nationality from territory and, under Tito, all communities exchanged their loyalty for guarantees of protection. With the collapse of this model, emergent states "rested their claims to legitimacy entirely on their national character." Derens says this approach "more or less succeeded in the case of Croatia, [but] at the cost of the exodus of the greater part of its Serb [population]. In Macedonia, the attempt to found the legitimacy of the state on ethnicity brought the country to the verge of civil war."

Derens says the "probable break-up of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro" will grant Serbia independence. "Will it seek to define itself as a mononational state or a multi-ethnic society?" he asks. "And will the Balkan states finally rest their political legitimacy on any other basis than ethnicity?"

But it is also "crucially important to break away from an approach that presents the nation-state as the only viable political framework," one that acts irrespective of any large minority populations that it hosts. Unless sizable minorities can strike a balance between peaceful political viability and marginalization, the Balkans "will inevitably witness new territorial conflicts in which the minorities forgotten in the clash of nationalisms will again pay a heavy price."


Writing in France's leading daily, Mirel Bran says Bulgaria and Romania are the newest fronts on which trans-Atlantic tensions are being played out. After having been rebuffed once again by the European Union, which delayed Bucharest and Sofia's membership until 2007, Romania became the first European country to bow to Washington's pressure and sign an exemption agreement for American citizens at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But then Romania and Bulgaria did a 180-degree turn, Bran says. At the European Council meeting near Thessaloniki in June, both nations -- along with 10 other future EU members -- agreed to back the common European position on the ICC. After a brief marriage of convenience with Washington, Bran says the EU aspirants soon broke these bonds to take up again with "Old Europe."

But American interest in these two nations remains. Since the disagreement with France and Germany over the war in Iraq, Washington has courted the support of former Soviet states in the East. Moreover, Washington seeks to establish long-term military bases in Romania and Bulgaria, within launching distance of the Middle East. Since February of this year, thousands of U.S. soldiers have been based in Romanian and Bulgarian port cities.

But European integration remains more alluring, says Bran. The United States remains far away and, moreover, both Bulgarians and Romanians need visas to get there. But when the EU doors open in two years, so will free passage in the Schengen zone.