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Western Press Review: Russian Power Plays, Hungary's Currency Crisis, And The 'Disguised' Motives For The Iraq War

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 13 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today takes a look at why Washington and London may have disguised the real motives for the Iraq war, Russian political maneuverings, and Hungary's recent currency crisis, among other issues.

FINANCIAL TIMES:

In a contribution to the London-based daily, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute says, "The crucial question concerning Iraq is why the motives for war were disguised." The contention that Iraq was a "grave and imminent threat" was "absurd," he says. Today, it "seems increasingly likely that Iraq was attacked because Saudi Arabia was deeply implicated" in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, while little or no evidence linked Baghdad to the attackers.

While Sachs acknowledges his is a highly speculative view, he suggests four possible reasons why an attack on Iraq was considered, given the hijackers' links with Saudi Arabia.

First, Riyadh's inferred complicity in 11 September offered "dramatic confirmation" that Saudi Arabian oil was an insecure source, and even demonstrated that Riyadh may pose a threat to U.S. security interests. Iraqi oil was the only "quantitatively significant alternative" to Saudi supplies.

Second, a new base had to be found for U.S. troops in the region to replace U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia.

Third, following the events of 11 September, the White House sought to make clear that aiding terrorists or otherwise threatening U.S. security interests could result in "regime change" in Saudi Arabia as it did Iraq.

Finally, the U.S. administration sought to obscure the Saudi connection for fear its own Saudi associates would be implicated.

Sachs says the U.S. administration seems unwilling to examine the Saudi connection. But the issues involved "are too big to be swept aside."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

An editorial says Russian politics are often "incomprehensible" to people both within and outside Russia. It remains to be seen whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is personally behind the Kremlin's crackdown on the Yukos oil giant, but what is clear is that the "strong-arm tactics" being employed "have little to do with battling economic crime." Instead, recent events have more to do with political maneuverings and upcoming elections in Russia.

The specific charges against Yukos "are not the issue," it says. Putin had long ago come to "an unspoken agreement not to spend too much time looking back at the corrupt and murderous way in which the Soviet Union's assets were privatized, so long as everyone agrees to follow certain rules." So speculation is rife that Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his associates "are being harassed because they had begun using their [wealth] too actively to back opposition parties, left and right, that are competing with the government's forces in the Duma elections set for December."

The Yukos affair follows the closure of Russia's last independent television station. "The New York Times" says this string of events indicates Putin is "undermining democracy by limiting the flow of information and by misusing the law to intimidate political opponents."

THE MOSCOW TIMES:

Yulia Latynina discusses Russia's divided political machine amid last week's rumors that both Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin had been sacked. Latynina suggests the rumors can be traced back to Viktor Ivanov, who heads the wing of the administration associated with the security services, law enforcement, and the military. She says the security services, or siloviki, make up one wing while Kasyanov and Voloshin "are usually linked to the administration's other wing," associated with the era of former President Boris Yeltsin.

"The political machine in Russia today has two wings, the siloviki and the oligarchs." Clearly President Vladimir Putin would prefer the cooperation and combined support of both wings, she says. But the siloviki have instead "decided to escalate their conflict with the oligarchs, judging by the deliberate rumors about Voloshin's dismissal and the ongoing Yukos affair."

But she says that "all of this begs the question: To what extent is Vladimir Putin in control of the situation? And can anyone now rein in the siloviki?" The siloviki, she says, are now "like genies let out of the bottle, first by the oligarchs, then by the president. Both tried to make the genies serve their own ends. And now they're astonished to see that they have triggered an uncontrollable chain reaction."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Mark Landler takes a look at Hungary's recent financial shock, which he says threatens to destabilize all of Central Europe. In late June, the country's central bank undertook a "modest" devaluation of the Hungarian forint, prompting "nervous currency traders" to begin dumping what had been one of the region's most stable currencies.

While not comparable to past currency crises in Latin America or Asia, Landler says the instability could indicate larger problems to come for all nine regional countries hoping to join the European Union in May. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic -- the largest of these EU aspirants -- "are facing a painful combination of slower economic growth, ballooning budget deficits and eroding foreign investment." The situation has been compounded by wage hikes and heavy spending on infrastructure, even while cash stocks are dwindling.

All three are running significant budget deficits: Hungary's was as high as 9 percent of its gross domestic product last year, while the Czech Republic's was 7.3 percent. Landler says in the past, Central Europe could afford such "free-spending ways because of the flood of foreign money. But as wages in the region rise, low-cost manufacturing jobs are fleeing farther east, to Romania, Bulgaria and even India and China."

And "as investment dries up," he says, "growth is sputtering."

LIBERATION:

In a contribution to one of France's major dailies, author Eric Denece says recent terrorist attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca show that militant Wahhabi fundamentalism is still a viable force in the world. If the international organization of Osama bin Laden has remained relatively quiet in past months, it is because Western-led antiterrorism operations have been relatively successful, Denece says.

But the entity that the press, for the sake of convenience, refers to as "Al-Qaeda" is a complex structure, he says. On one hand there is the clear framework of bin Laden's organization; on the other are numerous terrorist groups linked by a common culture of violent jihad and entrenched in their own respective countries.

Many armed groups have become gradually affiliated with Al-Qaeda over the past 15 years, says Denece. But most retain operational autonomy, relying on Al-Qaeda only sporadically for funding, training, or logistical support. Bin Laden's group does not exercise central operational command.

It is these decentralized, "second-tier" terrorists who were responsible for recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, he says. They are safely ensconced in local populations from Morocco to the Philippines. These terrorist groups need less support to act, enmeshed in a social fabric in which frustrations are rife.

Thus the fight becomes more complicated, Denece says. Third World armed groups do not need significant finances to organize their attacks. They draw their legitimacy from local frustrations and anger at U.S. policies in the Mideast and elsewhere.

BUSINESS WEEK:

Writing in the U.S.-based weekly, Mideast correspondent Stanley Reed discusses the nature of the Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. "Plenty of Iraqis with no special allegiance to Saddam [Hussein] have reason to lash out at the Americans, from rising crime to revenge for the death of relatives," he says. The U.S. occupation bolsters this resentment by dismissing too many Iraqis as unsuitable to participate in the new regime. "Instead," Reed says, "the U.S. needs to do a better job of convincing Iraqis they have a stake" in the new order.

U.S. authorities have a tendency to consider any former member of the ruling Ba'ath Party as guilty of tyrannical crimes, says Reed. But many Iraqis joined the Ba'athists "to advance their careers or because they admired its original secularist principles." Most were not involved in the violent or bloody crimes of the regime, nor were they die-hard Hussein loyalists.

Today, these "rank-and-file" members "could easily be rehabilitated and recruited to serve useful roles. A high proportion of the technocrats in the government ministries that ran Iraq's infrastructure were Ba'athists. The U.S. can ill afford to let their skills go to waste."

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