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Western Press Review: Bombings Rekindle Iraqi Debate, Khodorkovskii's Arrest

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of discussion in the press today finds much renewed debate on Iraq following a series of bombings in recent days in the Iraqi capital and elsewhere in the country. Another hot topic in the news is the 25 October arrest of Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Russia's richest man and a so-called "oligarch," in a detention many believe to be politically motivated as Russia gears up for parliamentary elections in December and a presidential ballot in March.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:

Escalating attacks against international targets in Iraq over the past few days has prompted columnist Fred Kempe to warn against a premature withdrawal in Iraq, whatever the dangers to be faced. Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Kempe says the aim of attacks like those on the Red Cross on 27 October or the Rashid Hotel the previous day "is less to kill than to further erode not only American but also international public support for an engagement that can only pay off in years and not months."

Some Mideast observers already predict America's "ignominious withdrawal" from Iraq, like the 1983 retreat from Beirut. But this time, Kempe says, "the stakes are higher." A power vacuum in Iraq could lead to civil war between the country's Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, as well as undermine the hopes of Arab reformers and liberals for a modernized, democratic Iraq. Radical, militant forms of Islam might also gain a renewed foothold in the country.

Kemp says a U.S. success in Iraq will not necessarily bring "progress and modernization" to the region -- but there is almost no hope of this happening without such success. When anti-U.S. forces "launch rockets at the Rashid hotel and blow up the Red Cross headquarters, it isn't time to cut and run." If the U.S.-led coalition does not "stay the course now and help change Iraq for the better, they'll have failed to learn the real lesson of Sept. 11: problems don't go away when they aren't addressed. They just grow uglier."

THE GUARDIAN

In a contribution to the British "Guardian," Toby Dodge of the Center for the Study of Globalization says establishing democracy in Iraq must come from the ground up. Many Iraqis feel alienated from both the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) now running the country and the structures, such as the Iraqi Governing Council, it has put in place. The CPA must convince the population "that the occupation is temporary and that real power is being devolved to real Iraqis across the country." U.S. forces "must deliver results on a local level that have meaning to the everyday lives of ordinary people."

Dodge suggests the creation of "local institutions, meeting local needs, staffed by local people." Any attempt "to speed up or bypass this incremental approach focused on the creation of specifically local government will result in further failure, instability and violence." The "hasty" creation of externally appointed political structures "with no links to the majority of Iraqi society breeds the resentment and anger fuelling the insurgency." Dodge says political representation must first "be built in the provinces, where it will have meaning for the lives of Iraqis. It can then, finally, be brought back to the capital." The Iraqi population needs "the space and time to develop its own indigenous political identity. It cannot be told ahead of time what this should and should not entail."

DIE WELT:

Jacques Schuster, writing in "Die Welt," emphasizes the uniquely humanitarian mission of the Red Cross when operating in war zones. In light of yesterday's announcement that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is reviewing its Baghdad operations following an attack aimed at its headquarters, Schuster says these attacks are being launched "on tolerance, the love of fellow men and neutrality," which are the cornerstones of the Red Cross mission.

He says that in times of war there are victims on all sides needing help. Organizations like the ICRC must stand impartially above conflict and ideology. The Red Cross is thus obligated to maintain neutrality. "If it loses sight of these fundamental human values then its underlying ideals are undermined."

If the Red Cross truly takes its mission seriously then it cannot leave Iraq, says Schuster. But he goes on to remark that serving such high ideals can be dangerous, noting that 20 Red Cross doctors and nurses were killed in the Chechen capital Grozny in December 1996.

THE BOSTON GLOBE:

A "Boston Globe" editorial says the "flamboyant" 25 October arrest of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii -- complete with special forces storming his private plane as if taking down a dangerous criminal instead of a white-collar businessman -- "says more about President Vladimir Putin's penchant for strong-man rule than it does about the shady practices that enabled the accused perpetrator [to] acquire a fortune."

This forceful use of power against Khodorkovskii and his associates "illuminates a conflict between two diametrically opposed conceptions of the kind of country Russia ought to become." The Kremlin, populated by several of Putin's former KGB associates, tolerates no true opposition. Whether challenges are posed by "TV stations, newspapers, human rights groups, or political parties, their reflex is to use all the levers of the central government -- propaganda, prosecutors, the president's office -- to put impertinent opponents out of business."

Although Khodorkovskii and many of his associates acquired their wealth in questionable privatizations, they now believe that to create "unrigged capitalism in Russia, where investors may feel safe from capricious or felonious Kremlin bosses, they must foster a pluralist democracy and an empowered civil society." But Putin and his cronies "want to keep power by whatever means necessary," and appear willing to sacrifice the rule of law to do so.

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

"The New York Times" today also discusses the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii and what this indicates about the Russian leadership. The paper says, "After laboring to project the image of a rational, law-abiding statesman, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has reverted to the vengeful violence of his old employer, the KGB." The editorial muses that Khodorkovskii will probably remain in Matrosskaya Tishina prison through the end of the year.

But this arrest "was a serious mistake, and Mr. Putin's claim that it was the act of an independent judiciary convinced no one, least of all the markets, which plunged on the fear that the Kremlin was showing its true authoritarian colors." The economic damage "is already large. The longer-term damage to Russia's image and Mr. Putin's credibility may be even greater."

Many observers speculate that it was less Khodorkovskii's economic dealings that got him into trouble than it was his financial support for opposition parties and hints of interest in the presidency. But if Putin is merely "counting on the outcry fading, which it may, Mr. Putin is being dangerously shortsighted," the paper says. His "wisest course would be to release Mr. Khodorkovsky and confront him in open court, in parliament or, if necessary, at the ballot box."

THE MOSCOW TIMES:

Writing in "The Moscow Times," Yulia Latynina says: "A coup d'etat has taken place in Russia. The law enforcement agencies have seized power. Everyone knew the coup was coming. And President Vladimir Putin did nothing to stop it."

The coup came in the form of the arrest of Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, which will have major consequences for how the Kremlin operates from now on.

Formerly, she says, Putin played the "old oligarchs" like Khodorkovskii against his own St. Petersburg cronies. And, as a result, the president "had access to full information about what was happening in the country." These inner "Kremlin clan feuds performed the function of a separation of powers. When the president relied on the old oligarchs as well as the new Saint Petersburgers, he was the master of both."

But by destroying one of these clans with the arrest of Khodorkovskii, Putin "has become the hostage of the other." Latynina says soon Putin will have to rely only on TV news for his information, just like the rest of the country. And of course, she sardonically adds, "the news anchors will assure him that the workers worship him and that his ministers hang on his every word."

FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU:

Regarding the indictment against jailed Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, a commentary by Karl Grobe in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" looks at the three mechanisms of power in Russia, which he says are "the Kremlin, the [bureaucracy] and the security services, or 'siloviki', successors to the KGB."

Grobe discusses the era following the chaotic 1990s when the oligarchs amassed their wealth in a privatization free-for-all. Putin ignored this "kleptocratic privatization" as long as the oligarchs refrained from political involvement. But media tycoons such as the now-exiled Boris Berezovskii and Vladimir Gusinskii were considered to be "instruments of power" in their own right. Grobe says they challenged Putin's vision of a managed democracy, which will not accommodate a second or third pillar of power.

Economic power can be political power, and the energy sector is critical -- particularly since Russia's economy relies so heavily on the export of oil and gas. Thus Yukos energy giant chief Khodorkovskii was seen as a threat to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin needs reliable cadres, says the paper, which the secret services, or "siloviki," provide. The "siloviki" are also anxious to guard their own share of wealth and power. But Putin's men detected a threat from Khodorkovskii, as the head of the Yukos colossus that wields such vast economic influence and who then made the mistake of hinting at political ambitions.

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

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