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Western Press Review: The Yukos Saga Continues, Religious Tolerance In Georgia, And Regulating The Internet

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The situation in Russia continues to dominate press commentary from all over the world, as Alexander Voloshin leaves his post as Kremlin chief of staff, reportedly as a result of the Yukos controversy. The energy giant, one of Russia's best-known enterprises, has been under investigation for fraud and tax evasion. The arrest on 25 October of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii has sparked widespread controversy both within Russia and internationally, as many view his detention as a bold political maneuver ahead of December parliamentary elections and a presidential ballot in March. Several observers speculate on what effect the Yukos affair will have on investor confidence and thus Russian economic growth, while others discuss whether the Kremlin's move indicates a growing trend toward civic repression in President Vladimir Putin's Russia. Also discussed in the press today is religious tolerance in Georgia, the upcoming UN summit on issues relating to the Internet, and taking active steps to integrate immigrant communities with their host cultures.

THE IRISH TIMES:

An "Irish Times" editorial says the ongoing struggle between the Yukos oil leadership and the Kremlin looks set to affect world confidence in Russian markets as well as Russia's long-term political stability. The arrest of CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii seems a clear warning that Russia's so-called oligarchs should stay out of politics. Several observers have speculated that Khodorkovskii's arrest had more to do with his overt support for opposition political parties than it did with Yukos' alleged financial misdeeds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin "is playing a canny game ahead of parliamentary elections in December and presidential ones next March," the Irish daily says. Putin's cadre, largely made up of former KGB members like himself, seem to favor increasing state control over Russia's political and economic culture.

The system they are creating is one in which "basic civil liberties, political organizations and media freedoms are widely circumscribed and a pervasive cynicism exists about the public sphere." And how the Yukos affair turns out "will affect not only the Russian government's domestic legitimacy but its international credibility."

EURASIA VIEW:

Writing in "Eurasia View," Daan van der Schriek discusses the extent of religious intolerance in Georgia. The country "has tolerated hundreds of assaults on Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, and those outside Georgian Orthodox Christianity," he says. And yet attacks on minority religions, such as a May raid on Jehovah's Witnesses by Orthodox Christians, have gone largely unnoticed and unanswered.

Politicians may find it "easy to score political points" by declaring themselves in favor of religious tolerance and inter-religious amity. But it seems "almost impossible to rouse police or politicians to assert minority religious rights."

The Georgian Orthodox Church has always declared itself to be against violence. Its followers believe instead that converting others is best achieved through dialogue. "Yet the church asserts its brand of Christianity is the only legitimate one in the state," says van der Schriek.

Religious diversity prevails in the breakaway Ajaria region. But elsewhere in Georgia, "those who are not Georgian Orthodox increasingly face isolation if not outright abuse."

THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:

The "Christian Science Monitor" discusses the upcoming UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which will bring together representatives from 185 countries to discuss issues "ranging from control of the Internet to providing Web access to the poor." But the "Monitor" warns that the meeting, scheduled for December, could provide an opportunity for authoritarian governments to crack down on Internet freedoms and access to media.

"One beauty of the Internet is the freedom to access, read, and publish information," the editorial says. And yet "60 percent of countries participating in the WSIS don't have freedom of the press but do have equal votes at the meeting." Undemocratic, authoritarian leaders may "hope to gain UN legitimacy for blocking any Internet content that might help their political opponents." Moreover, governments often cite national security concerns as an excuse to curtail Internet and other media freedoms.

The "Monitor" calls on the United States and other Western nations to ensure that the final communique from the UN meeting defends the "basic freedoms" of Internet users. The WSIS should be sure to uphold Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

LOS ANGELES TIMES:

"It's hard to feel sorry for Russia's industrial oligarchs," begins an editorial in the "Los Angeles Times." During the chaotic privatization of state enterprises after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a handful of wealthy businessmen bought up Russian assets relatively cheaply and became overnight billionaires -- "even as many Russians were plunged into poverty."

But the arrest of Yukos Oil chief Khodorkovskii, while portrayed as a campaign against corruption, in truth merely helps Russian President Vladimir Putin "consolidate his power before a March 2004 presidential election and crushes independent voices." The paper warns that foreign companies "won't sink money into building a better Russia unless they know that the rule of law prevails in Moscow." Khodorkovskii's arrest has undermined this belief and, moreover, it hints at anti-Semitism. The paper notes that many of the oligarchs targeted by Moscow, including Khodorkovskii and media tycoon Boris Berezovskii, are Jewish.

If Russian prosecutors pursued the oligarchs using the legal system, the international community might relax a bit about recent events. But after decades spent trying to keep a "rampaging" Soviet Union in check, the world "cannot let Russia retreat from reform."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:

In a commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Juergen Kaube discusses issues relating to immigrants in Germany, in light of a conference held on the subject in Cologne last weekend. The meeting once again raised a question universally posed about immigrants: are they integrating well with the host environment or, on the contrary, are they creating an alien element by adapting their new homes to their own needs? Kaube says, "Behind the debates over headscarves, mosques and passports is the feeling that diverging demographic trends between native Germans and the immigrant population are changing the cultural balance, and thus the country itself."

The commentary says the authorities should treat the problem of immigrants seriously. Instead of just expressing unease, they should deal with the realities and not just consider migrants "mere labor-market participants." This attitude has given immigrants the impression that "they are economically and politically, but not culturally, dependent on the society that surrounds them."

Kaube suggests there is a remedy in better educating the up-and-coming generation of immigrants. German culture should be explained, while various foreign cultures should be represented in schools, where today different cultures are hardly dealt with in textbooks. Kaube says while German pupils "continue to learn of the Turks attacking Vienna in their history lessons, they rarely find out much about the Turks living in Berlin today."

LE FIGARO:

"Le Figaro's" Moscow correspondent Patrick de Saint Exupery says five days after the arrest of Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii sparked a political crisis in Moscow, the Kremlin continues "to blow hot and cold." The constitutional court lifted some controversial restrictions on media coverage of election campaigns passed last summer by the Duma. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made conciliatory statements about the NATO alliance, which the Kremlin often regards as "hostile" to its interests. And Russia's main bankers and key foreigners on the Moscow scene were invited to meet with President Vladimir Putin, who attempted to reassure them in the wake of the Yukos controversy and falling Russian markets.

But this charm counter-offensive did not do much to ease the rising tension in Moscow. The Putin administration's obliging gestures were made even as Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin was leaving his post, reportedly over his objections to the Yukos crisis and Khodorkovskii's arrest. Moreover, the office of Moscow's public prosecutor was in the process of seizing a large stake in Yukos shares thought to belong to Khodorkovskii.

De Saint Exupery goes on to cite some Moscow observers as saying attempts to consolidate power by Putin and his allies in the security services, or siloviki, have unexpectedly brought Moscow's elites together. In the runup to parliamentary elections in December, the siloviki's power-grab might just prompt left and right political forces to form a union aimed at taking on the security services.

FINANCIAL TIMES:

In a contribution to the "Financial Times," former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt describes Moscow as "a hothouse of political speculation and whispered discussions" following the Khodorkovskii arrest. "Indeed," he says, "Russia today is as lacking in transparency as it is lacking in the rule of law." Bildt, like many, suggests the arrest was politically motivated. "During his first presidential bid, Vladimir Putin unleashed a vigorous populist campaign on the issue of Chechnya which contributed to his success. Now, some brutal business-bashing might serve a similar purpose."

But the long-term cost for Russia could be very high, Bildt says. If Russia wants to continue its economic growth, there must be "substantial liberal economic reforms, a marked increase in foreign direct investment and the creation of a climate conducive to small and medium-sized Russian enterprises."

And all three of these economic ingredients are now "under mortal threat from the growing influence of the siloviki faction of old-style security-oriented individuals that are gaining ascendancy in the Kremlin. It is the power ministries, not the reform ministries, that are starting to call the shots."

Derailed reform efforts, less investment and fewer businesses will undermine Russia's economic growth in coming years. Bildt says, the "siloviki might not complain, but everyone else will pay the price." He calls on the EU to take a stand that is "clearly on the side of reforms, the rule of the law, and democracy in all of Europe."

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

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