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Western Press Review: Khodorkovskii's Arrest; Rebuilding Iraq; And Serbia's New Court

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 27 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Media attention today continues to focus on events in Iraq, in the wake of a weekend mortar attack on the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad and a series of explosions this morning throughout the capital.

The 25 October arrest of Russia's richest man, Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, has also prompted much media speculation. Many observers suspect his detention of being politically motivated as Russia heads toward parliamentary elections in December and a presidential ballot in the spring. Khodorkovskii had recently begun donating some of his vast wealth to Russian President Vladimir Putin's political opponents.


An editorial in "The Irish Times" says the 23-24 October donor conference for Iraq in Madrid "came closer than expected to meeting its short- to medium-term targets on aid," raising $20 billion in all. This would indicate that some of the divisions in the run-up to war, "and the conduct of foreign policy by the United States after it, have now modified sufficiently to allow other states to make a greater commitment."

But France and Germany, which opposed the war, "are notably absent" from the list of donors. Spain and Britain, both vocal supporters of Washington's Iraq policy, are now the largest of the European Union donors.

The paper says the progress made by the U.S.-led occupation has been "uneven." Security "remains lacking, affecting business confidence and international readiness to make longer-term commitments for reconstruction. These problems will not be fully overcome until there is an agreed timetable for returning sovereignty to Iraq."

Iraq "is a wealthy state capable of reaching high levels of development once it is relieved of the burdens of dictatorship, occupation and international isolation." The Madrid donor conference "has made a useful start" in the rebuilding process. But future progress "will depend on resolving the serious outstanding political questions it still faces."


"The Moscow Times" in an editorial says it is odd that Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to comment publicly on the 25 October arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, chief of the massive Yukos energy company and Russia's richest man. Khodorkovskii was captured in Siberia "as if he were a dangerous criminal on the run, and the president says nothing." It is "inconceivable" that the Federal Security Service (FSB) would have arrested Khodorkovskii without Putin's approval, says the paper. "But what happens next?"

An ongoing investigation into Yukos began last summer and peaked with the July arrest of key shareholder and close Khodorkovskii associate Platon Lebedev, who remains in prison. "Throughout the summer, Putin made only a few, always oblique, references to the Yukos affair and carefully avoided taking sides."

But as "Putin's rhetoric sharpened and Khodorkovskii refused to back down -- he all but dared the Kremlin to come after him -- perhaps the writing for his arrest was on the wall. But the storming of his plane at the airport in Irkutsk was alarming. Its sole purpose was as a blatant show of force by the siloviki faction [former security officials] fighting for control in the Kremlin."

The Moscow daily says: "It is time for Putin to take responsibility for what is happening in this country. It is time for him to stand up and say where the attack on Yukos shareholders is going and, more importantly, where Russia is going."


The Moscow bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires, Geoffrey Smith, comments on the Khodorkovskii arrest in a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe."

He says that as a way of "keeping a close rein" on Russia's oligarchs, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin "chooses not to trust," the arrest was "a masterpiece." But this does not "[justify] the travesties of legal procedure that the country's law enforcement operatives are committing almost daily. Whatever the reasons of the campaign against Yukos, the mute acquiescence over months to one abuse of power after another by the prosecutors will inevitably and rightly harm Russia's image abroad."

Several observers have speculated that the Yukos investigation and the arrests of Khodorkovskii and Yukos shareholder Platon Lebedev will lead to a decline in investor confidence in Russian markets. And yet, Smith remarks that although there is still a "near-complete absence of properly functioning courts" in Russia, investment capital "flows not to those countries with the best judicial systems," but to those promising the best returns.


An editorial in the British daily "The Independent" says Mikhail Khodorkovskii has been accused of fraud and tax evasion much like fellow Russian oligarchs Boris Berezovskii and Vladimir Gusinskii, who have since left Russia. Khodorkovskii's charges also "follow the curious pattern of being leveled against the oligarchs only after they start to take an interest in politics."

Khodorkovskii's arrest "looks politically motivated -- not least because Mr. Putin struck a public deal with the oligarchs that the source of their money would not be investigated if they stayed out of politics. Mr. Khodorkovskii only recently began funding parties opposed to Mr. Putin's Unified Russia party."

But even more "sinister" is the "slow squeeze on the diversity of broadcasting in Russia, which has a chilling effect on the freedom of millions of Russians, as opposition television stations are harassed or closed."

The paper says, just as the Russian economy "was starting to attract substantial amounts of foreign investment, on the basis of a robust legal system and a stable polity, this is precisely the kind of sharp practice that will deter outside investors."


The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, chief of Russia's Yukos oil corporation, prompts several comments in the German press as well. Manfred Quiring in "Die Welt" describes Khodorkovskii's arrest as a "demonstration of strength" by the siloviki, the clan that came to power thanks to Putin. The state showed it knows how to use its muscle when faced with so-called "insubordination" from a member of Russia's corporate elite.

There is no question Khodorkovskii acquired his fantastic wealth "in the wild '90s," during widespread privatization -- "when the rules, agreements and laws were not worth the paper they were written on." But the Russian legal system rarely found cause to interfere. The interference comes only now that there is a conflict of interest between the powers that be.

In Khodorkovskii's case, the fault lies in his political ambitions. He has openly supported opposition parties in the Russian parliament, which has insulted Vladimir Putin, Russia's "imperious president."


On the same topic, a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says that in the 1990s, nobody achieved wealth legally in the course of privatization in Russia. In Putin's "managed democracy," any one of the oligarchs can today be accused of criminal actions.

That the Kremlin is not really concerned with the wealth of some 17 Russian billionaires while 40 million live under subsistence levels seems to indicate that "as long as the oligarchs support parties near to the Kremlin, they can keep their money. But anyone coming forward with political ambitions will be brought before a prosecutor."

The paper wryly remarks that these seem to be "the rules of the game under Vladimir Putin the 'reformer.'"


An editorial in "The Washington Post" discusses the possibility that trials for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia will eventually be moved from The Hague to the countries in which the alleged atrocities took place. A special court was created in Serbia last week to try wartime and other crimes.

The editorial says relocating such trials locally is, in principle, "the right thing to do. If conducted fairly and if based on real evidence gathered by real investigators, trials of this kind will always have the most impact, morally and politically, in the countries that perpetrated the crimes."

The Hague prosecutions of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters "do not serve their full purpose if Serbs themselves are able to dismiss the process [as] something that is happening 'abroad.'"

However, a Serbian war crimes trial would serve no purpose "if the process would become corrupt or be dropped altogether." Considering the long-term impact of this issue "is important, and not only in order to ensure that some form of justice is done. A thorough understanding of the past, and of the atrocities committed by all, will also help prevent these still-fragile [Balkan] political entities from going to war with one another again."


Writing in France's "Liberation," Veronique Soul says that since his election in March 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had three "obsessive" goals: to modernize Russia and return it to its former status as a great power, to crush the separatist movement in Chechnya, and to put the Russian oligarchs back in their place, for under former President Boris Yeltsin they had an "annoying" habit of getting involved in politics.

Soul says this last objective is the one closest to Putin's heart. Under his system of "managed democracy," there can only be one "tsar" -- and Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii threatened to overshadow him.

The deep distrust Putin feels toward the oligarchs stems from his vision of power. For him, Russia can only be guided by authoritarian methods. After Yeltsin's "erring ways," Putin sought to restore a stricter, more vertical power structure. Thus, the fabulously rich oligarchs must fall into line, at the risk of having the law come crashing down on them.

While Putin lauds the "dictatorship of the law," he has a very selective approach to it, Soul says. His first gesture as president was to sign a decree guaranteeing judicial immunity for Yeltsin and his close advisers. As the former head of the FSB, Putin is familiar with all the files on -- and dubious dealings of -- Russia's oligarchs. And yet he only goes after those who cross him.


"The New York Times" in an editorial discusses the 15 October election of Ilham Aliyev to the Azerbaijani presidency. Aliyev succeeded his father, outgoing President Heidar Aliyev, in a controversial election that was followed by days of protests by the opposition and its supporters.

"Ilham Aliyev ran a rigged campaign, using all the powers of the state, and then celebrated his victory by arresting most of the opposition," the paper says. Azerbaijan's new president then "accepted the fawning congratulations of the outside world -- including Washington."

Aliyev's election "was rigged from the start," the paper says. "The government appointed supporters as election officials. Police blocked opposition rallies and beat up opposition supporters. Citizens' groups were banned from monitoring the vote." And yet, the international community "did nothing to discourage Mr. Aliyev from this raw display of power."

U.S. President George W. Bush "has said he went to war in Iraq in part to create democratic models in Islamic nations. But America's support for the Aliyevs suggests the administration has not learned the lessons of its oil-inspired support for the shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein and successive Saudi governments."

The editorial advises Washington to keep its distance from the new Azerbaijani president, "and avoid repeating the unfortunate history of supporting autocrats who sit atop oil riches."

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