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Western Press Review: Militancy And Democracy In The Mideast; The Yukos Controversy; EU Enlargement

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The deadly bombing in Riyadh over the weekend (8 November) is renewing the debate over religious militancy and democratic reform in the Middle East. As these two forces play out in the region, several commentators are questioning whether the United States can be a credible proponent of reform, given its foreign policy toward repressive Middle Eastern governments, which is often viewed as being hypocritical.

Other topics discussed today include the ongoing Yukos controversy in Russia and European Union enlargement.


An editorial in "The New York Times" commends U.S. President George W. Bush for publicly acknowledging, in a speech last week to the National Endowment for Democracy, that U.S. foreign policy over the last 60 years had accommodated and cooperated with many dictatorships in the interest of stability. But this policy did not make America safer, Bush admitted, because stability cannot be ensured at the expense of freedom.

The paper says Bush "is right that Washington has failed to support abroad the values Americans live by at home. Too often, putting realpolitik ahead of freedom has backfired, causing anti-American rage."

The "NYT" says it is unfortunate that the U.S. administration's "biggest experiment in democracy promotion" is now taking place in Iraq, because the White House "has not been going about it in the most promising ways. As Iraqis are showing, even a terrorized population does not much enjoy foreign invasion and occupation. Nor does it help that Washington is running the show itself, keeping the United Nations and Iraqis mainly on the sidelines."

But the United States, "with its reverence for law and freedom and its awesome economic power and cultural influence, is well equipped" to promote democracy globally, the editorial says. But to succeed in this endeavor, the Bush administration must devote "the same kind of energy and resources into the diplomatic and educational sides of foreign policy as it has devoted to unilateral military action."


Historian Mark Mazower of London's Birkbeck College says the U.S. administration seems to believe that "bringing liberty to the Arab world will expand intellectual horizons" and undercut support for religion-fueled militant extremism. In this way, the White House ultimately hopes to foster a more pro-American perspective in the Middle East.

But Mazower says even if more democratic systems were established throughout the region, this would be unlikely to end the widespread distrust of Washington or anti-Americanism.

He writes: "What makes Arab opinion anti-American is not some sweeping rejection of modernity, or the American way of life, but simply opposition to American foreign policy. People in the Middle East see the U.S. [as] the Great Power which, more than any other over the past half century, has intervened to defend its own strategic interests by supporting the very dictatorships it now claims it wants to see vanish."

Mazower asks: "In such circumstances, how credible can Washington be as a force for democratic reform?"

Democracy may seem a "prerequisite for long-term success in the 'war on terror,'" he says. But in the short term, "dictatorial regimes and their intelligence services have a convenient handle to assure themselves of backing in Washington." During the Cold War, claiming to be battling communism "served the interests of nasty police states around the world for many decades." The campaign against Al-Qaeda could work much the same way, "allowing Washington to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses or to clampdowns on popular but anti-American parties."


Writing in the "Wall Street Journal Europe," Khaled Abou el-Fadl of both Yale University and the Commission on International Religious Freedom discusses widespread reports that funding coming directly or indirectly from Saudi Arabia is being used to finance religious schools and other institutions that are alleged to support intolerant or militant forms of Islam.

Saudi Arabia denies these allegations and continues to cooperate with the United States in its war on terrorism. But el-Fadl says it is important to determine whether the brand of Islam supported by Riyadh helps or hurts the campaign against religious militancy. The deadly 8 November attacks in Riyadh "only make that question more urgent," he says.

The Saudis "fund mosques, university chairs, Islamic study centers and religious schools known as madrassahs all over the world." And some of these institutions "provided ideological training for those who went to fight in Kashmir, Chechnya and Afghanistan," says el-Fadl. "The peaceful propagation of religious beliefs, including Islam, is a human right. But the concern is that the Saudi government may be propagating an Islam that promotes violence against non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims."

He suggests that a widespread, congressionally funded study be conducted to examine the extent to which the government in Riyadh, the Saudi royal family, or private individuals are propagating "a religious ideology that explicitly promotes hate and violence toward members of other religious groups."


"New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman says: "The single most under-appreciated force in international relations is humiliation." And he says many in the Muslim world -- whether in Iraq or the Palestinian territories -- are experiencing palpable humiliation. And this sensibility plays out on the world stage.

"One reason Yasser Arafat rejected [former U.S. President] Bill Clinton's plan for a Palestinian state was that he and many followers didn't want a state handed to them by the United States or Israel. That would be humiliating. They wanted to win it in blood and fire." Many Palestinians wanted the sense of "dignity" that would come from winning their own homeland. And it is partly for this reason, Friedman says, that Palestinians need "both their own state and a new leadership able to build their dignity on achievements, not resistance."

Many Iraqis face a similar conundrum over the U.S. occupation. Some "feel humiliated that they didn't liberate themselves" from the rule of Saddam Hussein. "America's presence, even its aid, reminds them of that." Add to this the daily misunderstandings, "and even the best-intended liberators will wear out their welcome."

Friedman says, "Tap into people's dignity and they will do anything for you. Ignore it, and they won't lift a finger." Americans "will foster a decent government in Iraq only if every day they turn a little more power over to Iraqis and create the economic conditions where Iraqis can be successful. The more the United States empowers Iraqis, the less humiliated they will feel [and] the less they will need the help."


Commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reacts to the car bombing on 8 November that killed at least 17 people and wounded another 120 in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The paper calls the incident "proof that the Al Qaida terrorist network is willing even to shed the blood of Muslims in its campaign to bring down the Saudi royal family."

But the commentary sees the resurgence of terrorism in Arab countries also as a consequence of American foreign policy. U.S. President George W. Bush's recent statements on the need to establish democracy in the Middle East seem to have renewed widespread incredulity and distrust. "Nobody will believe Washington's good intentions as long as American diplomacy exerts no effort to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would be just to both sides."

The "FAZ" adds that "it would be disastrous for Western policy if, in addition to the conflagrations in Iraq and Palestine, Saudi Arabia should become yet another crisis area. The toppling of Saddam Hussein would then have failed to untie the knots in the Middle East, as Washington had hoped, but would have launched a chain reaction of instability."


As the European Union discusses whether to establish a permanent EU presidency to replace the rotating system in place now, an editorial in "Le Monde" says the behavior of the current EU president should settle the debate once and for all.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who chairs the EU presidency until the end of the year, does not represent the EU position, "Le Monde" says. The stance he adopted with Russian President Vladimir Putin is a "disgrace" to the union. The EU must never again be represented by someone whose legitimacy is unquestionable in his or her own country but who must not be allowed to speak in the name of the union as a whole.

Berlusconi came to the defense of the Russian president, insisting that reports of human rights abuses in Chechnya were largely exaggerated. Apparently, Berlusconi has not read the UN reports on crimes committed by Russian forces in the small Caucasian republic, "Le Monde" says.

The Italian premier also dismissed concerns over the Yukos affair and the legality of the arrest of its former chief, Mikhail Khodorkovskii. Putin, for his part, responds to questions by insulting the journalists who ask them. This reaction makes sense coming from one who still has Soviet tendencies, the paper says. But this is not what should be expected from a Western leader.

Unfortunately, says the paper, many EU governments were slow to react, as was European Commission President Romano Prodi -- who only made his displeasure known once he had left Rome, and even then carefully and through his spokesperson.

The timid reaction of the EU member states once again shows their caution in risking a confrontation with the Kremlin leader.


A commentary in the "Guardian" by Ian Black says next May's "big bang" accession of 10 new member states into the European Union "will transform the political and economic map of the continent." Nothing on this scale has ever happened before or will ever happen again."

Following a report on enlargement released last week, Black says, "It is too late to do much about the readiness of next year's intake: all have signed their accession treaties, and all bar Cyprus have held referendums ratifying membership. It is one of the more worrying aspects of the European scene that most of the candidates voted overwhelmingly to join, while the current 15 worry rightly about losing plebiscites on the constitution."

Possible membership for Turkey is one of the largest outstanding debates, he says. And yet the prospect of Turkish membership "has brought undeniable progress on human rights and democracy. The trick is to persuade the generals in Ankara that a peace settlement in Cyprus is in their interests."

Black says, "The reality of a 25-member club is already here. [Europe's] once-familiar landscape is changing -- and far faster than we realize."


In the "Frankfurter Rundschau," Karl Grobe again turns to Russian politics and the bid for oil resources, describing these as part of "Putin's Great Game." Putin seeks to re-establish Kremlin control over Central Asia because of its geostrategic importance in holding sway over Eurasia -- but above all, he hopes to retain power over significant regional reserves of oil and natural gas.

Grobe says "wherever gas pervades the air, democratic aspirations evaporate quickly and human rights concerns are quick to dissipate." The primary concern then becomes to keep these states under control and to extricate them from all influences apart from Russia's.

The oil issue has become all-important now that election campaigns ahead of December's parliamentary poll have begun in earnest. Russia's liberal and pro-business parties launched their campaigns warning of a return to the days of authoritarian rule and predicting financial disaster following President Vladimir Putin's handling of the Yukos affair.

Grobe says the recent arrest of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii and the July incarceration of Yukos shareholder Platon Lebedev were "probably only the beginning" of the private sector's conflicts with Moscow.

As for the Kremlin, Grobe says the handling of the Yukos affair was "tactically clumsy" and predicts that official campaign slogans will be limited to such banalities as "Putin or Chaos." A pretense of pluralism will be upheld, but the fundamental aim is to keep the hierarchy of power as it stands.

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