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Western Press Review: Chechen Conflict, Public Opinion Polling Under Fire In Russia, And Iraq

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 18 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and editorials in the media today take a look at Iraqis' hopes for their future, the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, the perils of researching public opinion in today's Russia, Libya and the Lockerbie bombing, and remembering the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, among other issues.

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

In a piece published in both today's "New York Times" and the "International Herald Tribune," columnist Thomas Friedman says young Iraqis are looking to go beyond regional expectations of common "Arabism" as they rebuild their nation. Arab populations today often unite behind their shared outrage over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But many Iraqis now "express real resentment for the other Arab regimes, and even toward the Palestinians, for how they let themselves be bought off by Saddam [Hussein]. They feel that Saddam used the Iraqi people's oil wealth to buy popularity for himself in the Arab 'street' -- by giving Palestinians and other Arab students scholarships and nice apartments in Baghdad, and by paying off all sorts of Arab nationalist writers and newspapers."

But then these same pan-Arab loyalists "gave Saddam a free pass to torture, repress and starve his own people." Iraqis "have learned the lessons of phony Arabism -- that Saddam could send $35,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, while leaving his own people starving and living on two dollars a day." For Iraqis this was not a true common Arabism -- it was "torture and subjugation."

Now Iraqis want to rebuild and run their own government as soon as possible, Friedman says. But "not in order to join the old Arab nationalist parade," but "to build a modern state that actually focuses on tapping its people's talents and energies, [and] seeks to base their dignity on what they build."

THE MOSCOW TIMES:

Writing in the English-language "Moscow Times," columnist Matt Bivens discusses the lack of a clear U.S. policy on Chechnya. Bivens, who covered the first [1994-96] war in Chechnya for the "Los Angeles Times," says at that time the United States did not feel it had much of a stake in the Chechen conflict. Washington did not want to jeopardize the recent thaw in relations with Moscow over a tiny breakaway republic in the Caucasus.

But soon after the Chechen war was re-launched by President Vladimir Putin in 1999, "a relatively clear American position emerged: [That] there can be no military solution, only a political solution. For that, the two sides -- the Kremlin, and the elected, Kremlin-recognized then Kremlin-rejected president-in-hiding Aslan Maskhadov -- have to sit down and talk. The Kremlin has disdained the idea; Maskhadov welcomed it."

But Bivens says before real negotiations can ever begin in earnest, "both sides should rein in their most criminal behaviors -- but in particular the Kremlin should, because the scale of its crimes is so much more sweeping and massive, and because we expect more from the professional military of a democratically elected world government than we do from a handful of guerrillas."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:

"The Lockerbie deal has been sealed," says a commentary in today's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," referring to Libya's formal acceptance of responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 people on board. The German daily goes on to stress that "instead of admitting its guilt," Libya's only concern is "how many millions of dollars [it] is willing to spend to buy out of its terrorist past." After almost 15 years, its seems that Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and his oil-rich state have found partners in Europe and the UN Security Council to accept him back into the fold and lift sanctions, in spite of his reluctance to openly admit that Libya was involved in an act of terror.

It is unlikely that there will be any change of rule in Libya, the paper says, and so now it is up to Europe and the United States to press for the respect of human rights in Libya and not to concentrate exclusively on business projects and oil money.

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Writing in "The New York Times," sociologist Vladimir Shlapentokh of Michigan State University discusses the Kremlin's recent moves to replace the board of directors of the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies (VTsIOM) with its own representatives. Many have criticized the move as a Kremlin attempt to exert control over the body and undermine its independence. The center is reputed to be the most reliable public pollster in Russia.

The Kremlin claims its decision is part of a routine review of state-owned enterprises, and is not politically motivated. The center is owned by the state but receives no money, instead funding its activities through private contributions. But Shlapentokh says "there is reason to believe the center's research irritated authorities." Recent polls have shown that most Russians favor an end to the Chechen war; 62 percent support conducting negotiations with rebel leaders. Surveys in May showed that only 9 percent sympathized with President Vladimir Putin's party and only 24 percent were satisfied with what is happening in Russia overall.

Shlapentokh predicts that Russia's internationally respected polling center "will die in the next few months." As in Soviet times, the Kremlin has "decided to replace respected sociologists with those they can control." But the world "should not allow this to happen," he says.

THE WASHINGTON POST:

A 16 August editorial in "The Washington Post" also looks at the Kremlin's changes at VTsIOM. "In Moscow many theories are proffered about why the government replaced the directors," the paper says. "Some believe it is because the political party founded by President Vladimir Putin is doing badly in most reliable polls and the Kremlin would prefer that no one find out about it. Others believe popular discontent is rising more generally."

But whatever the real reason, the "Post" says "it is ominous that in the week following the center's announcement of the changes, no Kremlin official felt obligated to explain or respond" to criticism over the move.

The paper goes on to note that Moscow's moves regarding the polling center follow "on the heels of Kremlin decisions to shut down the last remaining national independent television channel and to carry out a series of criminal prosecutions of business executives that appear to be politically motivated."

The "Post" says, "clearly, Russia does remain free in many important ways. [But] just as clearly, the minority of Russians who would like to turn back the political clock are winning too many important victories."

The paper says the U.S. administration's silence on these developments "looks to many Russians like approval of these setbacks to pluralism." When U.S. President George W. Bush meets at Camp David next month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the "Post" says Bush should use this opportunity to make clear Washington does not approve of such moves.

LOS ANGELES TIMES:

In a contribution to the "Los Angeles Times," author Mark Kurlansky discusses the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In the months before the invasion, a new leadership in Prague under Czechoslovak Party chief Alexander Dubcek was allowing a liberalization of socialist rule. Travel restrictions were eased, as were limits on free speech and the press; criticisms of government policy were increasingly tolerated. Music and theater was enjoying a re-emergence. "Socialism with a human face" became the new political vision and the socio-cultural renaissance came to be known as the "Prague Spring."

But at 11 p.m. Central European time on 20 August, 4,600 tanks rolled in from five Warsaw Pact countries to crush the liberalization movement. Soviet leaders "believed that the Czechoslovakian Presidium, once its members saw the tanks coming, would oust Dubcek and his team and bring the country back into line. [But] no new government was formed and there was no one asking for Soviet intervention."

Kurlansky says the invasion "was widely condemned. [Of] the 88 Communist parties in the world, only 10, including the five Warsaw Pact invaders, voiced approval."

The Soviet Union had become "a superpower that no longer stands for anything, that no one believes in anymore, that is seen only as a bully." And a superpower like that "will fall despite its military might," he says. Kurlansky suggests the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush is experiencing a similar situation today. If Washington "ever wanted to reflect on history, it might think about this."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG:

A commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" defends Germany's decision to continue its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan rather than sending troops to Iraq. The paper says Berlin has many reasons for choosing this stance. Even in the unlikely event that the U.S. would concede to UN and NATO involvement in Iraq, this would not necessarily indicate German soldiers had received their marching orders.

It is natural for Germany to want peace in Iraq, says the paper. For that matter, peace is in the interests of everyone. The paper argues, however, that besides Germany, there are many countries that are eligible to send troops -- for example, those who supported the Iraq war. Unfortunately, experience has shown that in the fight against terrorism, zealous words from many rulers are followed by few real deeds.

Germany's priority must be Afghanistan, especially as it would be difficult to muster sufficient troops from other countries to meet the tasks of UN peacekeepers in and around Kabul. The commentary concedes that Iraq is an urgent matter, but says tasks "should be shared fairly." Other nations must also shoulder the responsibility for their policies.

THE WASHINGTON TIMES:

"Getting Iraq oil flowing again in full measure is an immense responsibility. By liberating Iraq, the U.S. government took upon itself this burden," says energy security analyst Ariel Cohen. Writing in "The Washington Times," Cohen adds that this "is a win-win proposition, as not just Iraqis but people all over the world will benefit from bringing the Iraqi oil back to the market."

He says the "key impediments to reconstruction of the Iraqi oil industry and ramping up of oil revenue are attacks on pipelines and the electric grid." Such attacks "are aimed at impoverishing Iraqis and making their life miserable." Before "serious reconstruction can begin, the Iraqi energy infrastructure needs to be physically secured. This will require a comprehensive assessment of security and protection needs."

Cohen suggests the United States should pay Iraqi tribes "whose areas the pipelines cross to keep out looters and terrorists." Washington should then cut these payments, "proportionate to damages incurred, if security is violated." U.S. officials should also "design and conduct a public information campaign explaining to the Iraqis the importance of pipeline security and oil revenues and calling for cooperation to root out terrorists and saboteurs."

Iraqi oil "has a fighting chance to reach the market," Cohen says. "The alternative -- misery for the Iraqi people and victory for terrorists -- is too dire to contemplate."

LE FIGARO:

Writing in France's daily "Le Figaro," Georges Suffert says as far as Washington is concerned, the new UN Security Council vote on Iraq last week was a success -- even if the other Council members do not perceive it as such.

At the launch of Anglo-American military operations in Iraq, Washington and London bypassed the Security Council and chose to launch a war without UN support. France, Russia, and other members of the Security Council publicly denounced the war. But since the fall of Baghdad on 9 April, sentiments have gradually changed, Suffert says. Today, both the United States and Britain want the UN to back their activities in Iraq. First, they seek recognition of Iraq's temporary government in Baghdad; but later, of course, they will want UN troops to take over for Anglo-American troops.

As for the UN, its intentions are more ambiguous. Although some Security Council members might have wished for a convergence of opinion on the war, many -- including France -- did not want to be forced to absolve the United States for its actions in Iraq.

But Washington and London will have to go further, notes Suffert. It is difficult for them to restore the peace alone. They need international recognition -- which they now have -- but also logistical support. Only the UN can provide such a force, he says. But it intends to set conditions for doing so.

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

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