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Western Press Review: Russia's Civil Society And Strategic Mideast Alliances, And Resurgent Aspirations For A 'Greater Albania'

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the Western press today discuss Russian politics -- both domestic and international -- in terms of its foundering democratic reforms, the Kremlin's nascent strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, and the ongoing war on Chechnya. Also at issue today are resurgent violence in Macedonia, the pervasive "chaos" of the war on terrorism, and promoting civil society in Iran.


In a contribution to "The Washington Times," Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation discusses a "new geopolitical tectonic plate shift" involving the nascent alliance between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Following Crown Prince Abdullah's "little-noticed visit" to Russia from 1-2 September, Cohen suggests Washington should monitor developments within this strategic union.

Traditionally rivals, Moscow and Riyadh "now claim to have found a common agenda, which spans oil, terrorism and arms sales. After the Iraq war, Riyadh is looking to balance U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf." No longer certain of its favored status in Washington, Saudi Arabia is making overtures "to the former empire it helped the U.S. to defeat in Afghanistan only 15 years ago."

Moscow, for its part, seeks partnership with Saudi Arabia "for a combination of geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. It is looking to compensate itself for the loss of influence in the Gulf with the demise of Saddam Hussein, the old Soviet client." Russian energy companies are seeking joint ventures in the Middle East while Saudis may invest in Russia's natural resources and other sectors, including energy and real estate. The Kremlin also "wants to intercept money flowing to the Chechen rebels from the Gulf."

Cohen cautions that Russian-Saudi rapprochement "may affect U.S. energy security and may diminish Russia's [support] of the U.S. war on terrorism. If successful, these ties may lessen America's clout in the Middle East" and strengthen Moscow's instead. The two newfound allies might also coordinate their oil supplies to the global market, thus significantly affecting global prices.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" contributing editor Garry Kasparov -- also the world's No.1 chess player -- says U.S. support for President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin is undermining civil society in Russia.

Kasparov says the U.S. administration's decision to forgive Russia for its objections to the war in Iraq while punishing France for the same stance "was received by the Putin regime as a green light for any drastic actions Mr. Putin might care to take in moving toward a KGB regime back home." Washington's "unbalanced" support for Putin has also granted the Kremlin "the power to crush any potential opposition."

Putin's security forces "are interfering in business activities when and where they choose. The [Prosecutor-General's Office] rubber-stamps accusations against oligarchs and big businesses upon orders from the Kremlin." Independent-minded journalists "are being sued and even imprisoned for publicly criticizing members of local administrations." And the actions of the parliament have been "reduced to private lobbying activities, while all major laws are drafted in the Kremlin and sent to the Duma for pro forma approval."

Russia continues to supply Iran with nuclear technology while also managing to play "a clever game of reaping benefits from both sides of every major international crisis." Meanwhile, in Washington, a "false belief" persists "that while America wages its war on terror, relative 'stability' and relative 'democracy' in a Russia with a relatively cooperative president need inspire no worries."


In a contribution to "The Moscow Times," independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer discusses Russia's system of "managed democracy." He says Russia has a multiparty system, "but since 2000 seriously contested elections have become extremely rare. By and large, Kremlin-selected favorites get elected. Candidates who threaten this corrupt election process are either 'persuaded' to leave the race or simply get disqualified."

After the steady shutdown of many independent Russian media outlets, "Kremlin-controlled television is the main source of information for the majority of citizens and is used to promote favored candidates and parties. Shameless propaganda and brainwashing has replaced journalistic news reporting, comment and analysis."

And now the Kremlin is taking these tactics to Chechnya, for next month it "plans to have its pet Chechen, [Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov, 'elected' president. Kadyrov is extremely unpopular in Chechnya, so other, better-liked candidates have been crudely forced out of the race."

Felgenhauer says it is already "clear that after the upcoming 'election' of Kadyrov, the population will give the rebels even more support and more innocent blood will be spilled. More bombs will go off and there will be more Russian reprisals."

He suggests sarcastically that what works in Moscow might also work in Grozny, saying, "Maybe the Kremlin should spend a fraction of what it is already squandering in Chechnya on providing each family with a television set and brainwashing them along with the rest of the nation."


A joint contribution by Mehdi Semati of Eastern Illinois University and Nasser Hadian of Tehran University says the U.S. administration's "hostility" toward Iran "is potentially counterproductive" to both reform efforts and regional stability.

The authors say student protests in June were not as widespread as some media reports portrayed, which indicates a "loss of public confidence in the once-popular reform movement." Judging also by the low turnout in February elections, the authors say Iranians "have little or no faith in the movement's leadership, which has failed to fulfill bold promises of introducing the rule of law, democracy, and a free press." They say the reform movement of President Mohammad Khatami "will now either have to become more energized in confronting conservative forces, or face becoming irrelevant."

But Iranians have also turned away from radical ideas of reform and today "prefer steady progress to revolution." Iranian hard-liners have managed "to retain power by weakening or eliminating any institution that keeps open the channels of communication between state and society."

To foster Iran's democratic potential, the development of civil society must be encouraged, especially through "promoting a body of nongovernment institutions that give people in all democracies the opportunity to participate in the issues and decisions that most impact their lives."


This week's "The Economist" magazine says talk of a Greater Albania is once again being heard, this time from the Albanian National Army, or AKSH. Recent violence along the Macedonian-Kosovar border is undermining the "fragile" coalition government in Skopje, where Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority and ethnic Macedonian majority "edgily share power."

The AKSH seeks to unite ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro, Greece, Macedonia, and Albania, in a pan-Albanian vision of the future "The Economist" says would "cause chaos in the Balkans."

But the magazine says the group ultimately represents very few ethnic Albanians. At the AKSH's core is a group of what it calls "50-70 cigarette smugglers drawn from both sides of the border with Kosovo." The latest violence "has been largely prompted by their desire to stop Macedonia's police from shutting down their smuggling routes and putting them behind bars."

The concern, however, is that Macedonian authorities might "overreact -- thus stirring nationalist Albanian passions, whatever the AKSH's criminal connections." In Kosovo, people remain frustrated at the inability to come to a final decision on the status of the province, now a UN protectorate. All three mainstream Albanian political parties feel independence "is overdue, and fear what they see as Serbia's growing influence in Washington and at the European Union's headquarters in Brussels."


Writing in "Le Monde Diplomatique," Alain Gresh says that two years "after the events of 11 September 2001 it is obvious to anybody examining the facts that the U.S. may have had military victories at the start, but is now getting bogged down politically in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The [U.S.] administration may have won battles against terrorism, but it has not won the war."

Almost two years after the fall of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, reports from the news agencies describe a situation in which chaos reigns. Nor should we have been surprised at the looting that followed the "liberation" of Iraq, he says.

The Pentagon "seems incapable of restoring order, security and basic services, and is now administering Iraq as a colony. It does not understand the Iraqi people's resistance. It mistakenly attributes this resistance to supporters of the ex-dictatorship," while failing to understand the Iraqi people's suspicions of U.S. motives.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, Gresh says, "a wave of chaos" is overwhelming that "better world" promised by the U.S. administration. Gresh says the "only way to peace is through the UN." Even the U.S. administration "seems to realize that now, but it wants both to have UN cover and to keep political and military control in Iraq. It needs to go further than that and give the UN the mandate to hand real power to the Iraqi people."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" today discusses the U.S. decision this week (16 September) to veto a resolution in the UN Security Council that would have formally denounced statements by Israel's security cabinet regarding the "removal" of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat -- either through expulsion or, possibly, assassination.

The commentary says the U.S. veto "was to be expected," as was the ensuing outcry. The Security Council was forced to react quickly, since it was clear there would be no unity on this issue and that Washington would insist on including in the resolution another formal condemnation of Palestinian terror.

The commentary says it finds it "disappointing and not exactly courageous" that Germany abstained from the vote. After all, Germany could have sided with the majority, since it considers Israel's moves "a serious error." Nevertheless, as Berlin is trying to maintain good relations with both sides at the moment, the paper says it chose to "exert its right to act unsatisfactorily."

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