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Western Press Review: Reforming Islam From Within And Russia's 'Power Grab' In Georgia

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the major dailies discuss the death yesterday of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, who was stabbed on 10 September by an unknown assailant while shopping in a Stockholm department store. The 46-year-old mother of two died after several hours of surgery failed to stem the bleeding. A further review of today's press finds talk of tailoring Islam to the modern world, fostering open communication within in the media in the Mideast, the challenges posed by Russia's new media restrictions on campaign coverage, and Russia's power grab in Georgia.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

The European edition of "The Wall Street Journal" eulogizes Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, who died yesterday following a 10 September knife attack at a central Stockholm shopping center. A large-scale manhunt in now under way for her assailant and it remains unclear whether the attack had a political motive. Swedish politicians often travel without security, taking public transport and mixing freely with the populace they represent.

The paper says the 46-year-old Lindh "emerged in recent years as a rising star at home and in Europe, one who never flinched from speaking her mind. She condemned Russian atrocities in Chechnya and, during Sweden's turn at the EU presidency in 2001, pushed hard for the bloc to take in new members from the east." Her killing "strikes a blow to democracy as well as the Swedish way of political life." The paper says, "Even if politicians need to take security more seriously, it'd be a tragedy if Scandinavian transparency were a victim of this killing."

Lindh's death comes ahead of this weekend's (14 September) anticipated vote on whether Sweden should adopt the euro, of which she was an enthusiastic proponent. But many remain nervous about the adoption of the single currency, and her killing "came at a time when many Swedes [lack] confidence in the ability of their leaders to address their concerns."

The paper says the Swedish government has "rightly decided the referendum will go ahead Sunday," adding that Lindh "wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

NEWSWEEK:

Writing in the international edition of "Newsweek," Christopher Dickey and Carla Power discuss attempts to reform Islamic thought from within and without. Men such as Hossein al-Khomeini, grandson of the famed Iranian ayatollah, are working to adapt religion to the modern world and favor a separation of mosque and state. This is good news for Washington, which is "mired more deeply every day in the anti-American fanatacism" of the Mideast.

But the authors say the U.S. administration "had better be careful." Washington has in the past believed "it could exploit the faith for its own geopolitical purposes. America's partnership with the Saudis and Pakistanis to support holy war against the Soviets helped mightily to spawn Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, on the second anniversary of Al-Qaeda's catastrophic attacks against America, it's worth asking what we've learned about this religion."

To begin with, the authors say it is important to realize "that fundamentalist teachings will attract zealots, bigots and demagogues in any religion. Absolutism is often easier to sell to the masses -- or to impose on them -- than relativism." But it would be "a huge mistake to hear moderate Islamist calls for democracy as an endorsement of everything they've seen in the West." Today, change is happening in the Muslim world. Still, the most essential lesson the United States can draw is that it "cannot try to tailor dynamic and complex cultural trends to suit its needs.... [It] can only hope that the most liberal reformers eventually do learn to move the masses."

THE GUARDIAN:

An editorial in Britain's "The Guardian" comments on the meeting this week in London of 10 well-known editors from Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. The paper says, "Even at the bloodiest times of the conflict in the Middle East a few politicians on both sides of the divide have contrived to keep discreet channels of communication open." Yet surprisingly, this has been less true of the press, for as "restrictions on travel became more severe and attitudes became polarized, so the normal exchange of journalistic information and ideas became rarer."

The 48-hour meeting in London sought to redress this shortcoming, bringing together representatives of papers from both the left and the right for "two days of uninhibited, challenging and revealing dialogue over much coffee, a certain amount of drink and a prodigious number of cigarettes."

As "The Guardian" describes it: "There was, of course, much vigorous disagreement. There were moments of considerable tension -- the news of the appalling suicide bomb in a Jerusalem cafe set editors' mobile phones ringing in the middle of a joint dinner." But the paper says there were also "moments when it became apparent, not only that there was much common ground, but that there was mutual surprise at the extent of agreement."

"The Guardian" says while peace "did not break out," the 10 journalists exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses which may serve to keep communication channels open in the future.

THE MOSCOW TIMES:

"The Moscow Times" in an editorial today calls the Kremlin's new restrictions on media coverage of political campaigns "draconian." The new regulations prohibit the press from providing any "commentary" when covering election campaigns. But the paper says the definition of "campaigning" is stated so broadly "that just about any newspaper article, TV report, etc. on an election could be interpreted as 'campaigning,' and it is illegal for media organizations to engage in 'campaigning' unless it is paid for out of the campaign funds of a party or candidate. Two violations by a media organization in an election campaign and it can be shut down for the duration of the campaign."

"In short," says the paper ironically, "if one takes the new regulations literally then the whole of the Russian media might just as well pack their bags and go on vacation until the Duma elections are over -- or, to be on the safe side, until next year's presidential election is over as well."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with "Kremlin-controlled Channel 1 and Rossiya [television], offered their own interpretation of the regulations" when Putin "demonstratively endorsed" the Kremlin-backed candidate for governor of St. Petersburg in a meeting widely broadcast by both channels. But none of the offending parties will likely be penalized for this infringement, because presumably, the Kremlin did not support the new restrictions for it to limit the president "or silence two of the Kremlin's most important propaganda organs." The legitimate concern, it says, is that the regulations are "targeted at intimidating those media outlets that the Kremlin does not control."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" today also discusses the assassination of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, focusing as well on the issue of security for prominent politicians in a country that has prided itself on "its egalitarian system that sets no store in status."

Lindh's death recalls haunting echoes of the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme 17 years ago, when "the country was roused from its idyll, yet no conclusions were drawn because they would have had to admit that the carefully cultivated Scandinavian isolation and the mystical unity of the Swedes had become a deceptive facade."

The commentary also reflects on the referendum on the euro due to be held on 14 September and says the Swedes "should express their sorrow with a resounding 'yes' vote," not only because Anna Lindh was dedicated to the cause of the euro -- and this may have been the motive for her killing -- but above all because the "Scandinavian specialness was always characterized as a counterweight to the European continent. For Sweden, the long and arduous road to Europe now leads via the recognition that the country will not be held back by this killing."

NEUE ZUERCHER ZEITUNG:

The Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" describes the assassination of Anna Lindh, a popular political figure and possibly Sweden's next prime minister, "as a cowardly assassination, which has also stabbed the values the Swedish people have always take taken for granted."

As for the outcome of the 14 September referendum on the euro, the paper says, "possibly many will decide to say 'yes' to honor Lindh's bequest. But this is by no means certain," it adds. In any case, Prime Minister Goran Persson, who also advocates the adoption of the euro, has done the right thing not to call off the referendum following Lindh's tragic demise.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Ilan Berman and Artem Agoulnik of the American Foreign Policy Council say Russia has shifted its Caspian strategy to "co-opting energy infrastructures in its 'Southern Rim.'" Armenia has already been quite cooperative, as has Azerbaijan. "The remaining battle [is] under way in Georgia," say the authors. And de facto control of the Georgian energy infrastructure has already been transferred to Moscow.

This trend "bodes ill for American and European interests." Georgia is the hub for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and the planned Baku to Erzurum, Turkey, natural-gas pipeline -- "both of which are designed to bring Caspian energy to European markets."

The paper says the European Union's "recent decision to appoint a special envoy to the South Caucasus is a positive sign that Europe is taking a keener interest in a region that will become a vital transit route for much of its energy within the next five years. The United States, for its part, has actively promoted Georgian democratization, and has recently offered to help resolve the long-running crisis over Abkhazia. But both have paid far too little attention to securing the independence of the Georgian energy system."

Now that Moscow "has acquired sweeping control over Georgian energy, the real question is no longer whether Georgia can remain a reliable ally of the West. It is whether it can do so without heat and in the dark."

LIBERATION:

An editorial in France's "Liberation" says before the attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States was the sole, undisputed hyperpower. Today, the United States is the only hyperpower but will now prove it whenever it has a chance, such as with its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, internal security has become a new priority. This double reaction to the attacks, of offense and defense, was inevitable and even legitimate, the paper says. But the U.S. administration's particular brand of reaction uses antiterrorism as a "sledgehammer" to dissuade criticism.

The international elements of the U.S. reaction have understandably received the most attention, particularly the run-up to war in Iraq. But moves to increase internal security are also worrying, though less visible. The restrictions on individual rights -- such as those alleged at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where U.S. forces hold fighters from Afghanistan -- are particularly disturbing, says the paper.

These "patriotic" practices standardize the exception and legitimize the concept of denying rights even within the realm of rights. And this, "Liberation" says, runs counter to the entirety of civic culture that has characterized the "American adventure."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:

A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses the way Ukraine is tackling its economic problems, characterizing Kyiv's approach as unrealistic. The commentary says Ukrainian economic development has "not exactly seen a successful transformation in the postcommunist era," and its future foreign trade policy -- foreseeing a common economy in conjunction with Russia, Belarus, and Kazahkstan -- "could be described as 'Back to the Future.'"

The commentary agrees with the political opposition in Ukraine, which insists this new union will not lead to economic success, "but on a direct path toward political dependence on Russia -- and away from the prospect of joining the EU." It makes absolute sense to consider a liberalization in trading goods and capital. "But," says the commentary, "if the underlying aim is bound to an assimilation of the legal system, then the political ties are not far off and the whole matter takes on new weight. This would develop into a kind of 'post-Soviet Mini-Union.'"

The paper says, "it is also common knowledge that many look back with nostalgia to the old Soviet days and dream of a modern version of the past." Ukraine should not indulge in such fantasies, for it would certainly not lead to a happy European ending.

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

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