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Western Press Review: The Struggle For Influence In Central Asia, Franco-U.S. Relations, Chechen Elections

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 2 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- We begin a review of media coverage today with a look at the balance of power in Central Asia, as major powers Russia, China, and the United States compete for regional military and economic influence. We will also take a look at Franco-U.S. relations and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Chechnya as the breakaway republic prepares to go to the polls in a much-criticized, one-candidate presidential election on 5 October.


Writing in "Eurasia View," regional affairs analyst Todd Diamond discusses the struggle between Russia and America for influence in Central Asia.

He says the "general perception that the United States has acted solely out of self-interest since the September 11 terrorist tragedy has prompted other regional powers in Central Asia, namely Russia, to take countermeasures, creating an unsettling dynamic."

The increasing U.S. presence in the region is generally thought to stem from America's need to support ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. But Russia "has more immediate regional interests that compel Moscow to maintain a long-term presence." Russia has in recent months moved to solidify its Central Asian presence by reinvigorating regional multilateral cooperation through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

As regional analyst Nikolai Zlobin observed, these moves have as much to do with making a political statement as they do with pursuing Russia's interests -- Moscow means to imply that America is a temporary player in the region; Russia is there to stay.

But of particular concern to some observers is the suspicion that U.S. military partnerships with nations such as Uzbekistan have "emboldened" their often autocratic leaders. Central Asian leaders "have exploited the great power jockeying to solidify their own holds on power, and dim hopes for civil society development in the region."

Now that President Askar Akaev hosts both Russian and U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan, Zlobin asks, "Who is going to accuse him of human rights abuses?"


Writing in France's "Le Figaro," European studies professor Ezra Suleiman of Princeton University says relations between the United States and France have become "execrable." A failure to recognize this will preclude any chance of the two erstwhile allies reuniting to work for common objectives -- and he says their common interests are just as urgent today as they were during the Cold War.

The U.S. administration has changed its tone with respect to its former allies, says Suleiman. Granted, the attacks of 11 September 2001 created great trauma in America. But they also supplied Washington's neoconservatives with the opportunity to sell President George W. Bush on a more "muscular" foreign policy that departs from a multilateral view based on respect for treaties and international bodies. Suleiman says empires have always preferred the subordination of other nations -- allies as well as enemies.

The author says the world is now being confronted by three great threats -- terrorism, rogue states, and "almost-state" entities that have "nothing to lose." These emergent threats are further aggravated by the burgeoning availability of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Suleiman remarks that no consensus yet exists among allies as to how to address these threats, all of which are infinitely more pertinent than the popularity of any particular world leader. There is nothing more urgent than arriving at a consensus to meet these challenges, he says.


An analysis by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" says that, given the cooperation between all four Central Asian countries and Washington regarding military operations in Afghanistan, Beijing has thus far been "avoiding any open indication of its concerns over the U.S. presence in the region."

But the Chinese leadership has embarked on a "comprehensive policy" to bolster its presence in the region, which China has long considered its "strategic backyard." First, Beijing is trying to get a hold on the expanding Central Asian economies by strengthening institutional ties as both a supplier and an investor. The eventual establishment of a regional free-trade zone is also a long-term goal.

China additionally seeks to implement a coordinated policy on combating Muslim Uighur separatists in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. By variously strengthening its Central Asian ties, Beijing hopes to offset rising U.S. influence in the region.

But many Chinese strategic analysts believe that "sooner or later issues such as concerns over human rights and a lack of democracy will create a rift between the Central Asian regimes and the [U.S.]" The United States' growing military presence in the region "is also providing a significant motive for China and Russia to develop a joint strategy."

The Moscow-Beijing partnership could prove an efficient counterweight to U.S. social, political, and economic influence in Central Asia.


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," author and international political economy professor Francis Fukuyama says there is a "perfectly respectable argument" for speeding the transition of power in Iraq from the occupying powers to Iraqis. "But there are also some very important reasons for not making the turnover too rapid or skimping on resources," he says.

Nation building "involves a lot more than training indigenous police and military forces to take over their coercive roles from the occupying power. Unless such forces are embedded in a broader structure of political parties, civilian administration, respect for individual rights, and rule of law more generally, they are subject to being hijacked or abused in the internal struggle for power."

Fukuyama warns that as reconstruction drags on and casualties mount, "there will be calls [in the United States] to declare victory and use that as an excuse for drawing down troop levels and capping resource transfers." There will also "be a strong temptation to use nation-building 'lite' as an intellectual justification for what ultimately becomes a simple exit strategy, regardless of the risks it poses for the future of a democratic Iraq."

The Bush administration has always been "schizophrenic" about its commitment to nation building, Fukuyama says. While a quick transfer of power is desirable, it is important to recognize that nation-building is "an extraordinarily complex and time-consuming process."


An editorial in the "Financial Times" says Afghanistan "has been portrayed as the quick and worthwhile American military triumph that Iraq was not. After September 11, 2001, the U.S. and its allies swiftly overthrew the Taliban rulers who had harbored the world's most notorious Islamic terrorists. Kabul greeted the event with the unfeigned joy that the Americans later expected -- but rarely saw -- in the cities of Iraq."

But now things have turned sour, the paper says. Only now is Washington "belatedly" realizing the threat posed to Central and South Asian stability by a deteriorating Afghanistan.

"Since August, 300 people have been killed, including aid workers, villagers, U.S. soldiers and pro-Taliban gunmen, making this the most violent period since Mullah [Mohammad] Omar was ousted." The fighting has been focused near the border with Pakistan, but the violence is now spreading to more northern areas.

The London-based daily says: "Good works -- including road-building, peacekeeping and negotiations for a new constitution -- are being done. But neither the country's foreign well-wishers nor its government seem to be able to match the zeal of the Taliban guerrillas who are seeking to topple [Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid] Karzai and return Afghanistan to extremist Islamic rule."


Discussing presidential elections in Chechnya on 5 October, Markus Wehner of the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says although there originally were other candidates, the election has already been decided.

"Akhmad Kadyrov, whom the Kremlin declared the strong man three years ago, will be elected president of the Caucasus Republic."

Wehner predicts that "some Chechens will vote for Kadyrov, because they see no alternative to doing what they are told to do. Others fear they will lose their jobs if they do not openly place a cross next to Kadyrov's name. Many will vote against all candidates."

But it is all irrelevant. Kadyrov's election campaigner has already announced a victory for his candidate with a 65 percent majority.

Commenting on this result, Wehner says Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking a huge risk in backing Kadyrov, who will be faced with the opposition of separatists who will reject the new president and those who want to be free of the Russian Federation.

Wehner says Kadyrov should be wary of making the mistake of his predecessor, Aslan Maskhadov, who was willing to share power. He will probably introduce a rigid "vertical power" system and so necessarily come into conflict with those who have the real power in Chechnya, notably the Russian Army.

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