Prague, 14 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The "recurring theme" of election rigging in the Caucasus is one of the topics discussed in the media today, as recent ballots in both Azerbaijan and Georgia continue to invite international criticism, as well as protests from the countries' opposition parties.
Events in Iraq and Afghanistan are also addressed, as Western efforts to establish fledgling democracies in both nations seem to be floundering on a number of fronts.
In a contribution to "Eurasia View," Fariz Ismailzade, a geopolitics and economics analyst for the Caucasus region, says despite widespread international criticism of Azerbaijan's 15 October presidential election, President Ilham Aliyev has already been recognized by the United States and the European Union as the country's rightful leader.
Aliyev took over the presidency from his father, Heidar Aliyev, in what many considered an overtly manipulated dynastic succession. Although criticism of the election is growing, many Azerbaijanis "suspect that Western governments will accept any leader in the Caspian who keeps the region's oil and gas accessible."
Condemnations have come from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. But the reproof from the U.S. State Department (Foreign Ministry) was "too evenhanded for some Azerbaijanis to accept," Ismailzade says. And stronger rhetoric in recent days from the West's democracies "may do little to stem anti-Western passions."
Opposition activists "see all of Azerbaijan's geopolitical influences -- Turkey, Russia, the European Union, and the United States -- expressing support for the idea of fair elections but standing behind Aliyev despite the nature of his victory."
The opposition's disappointment may make it likely to approach future elections "without strong hope for moral backing from foreign governments." And "having endured relatively mild rebukes from European and American institutions," the authorities may now feel free to "step up pressure on the civil society, opposition parties, and the free media."
THE MOSCOW TIMES:
An editorial in "The Moscow Times" says in what has become "a recurring theme" in the Caucasus, demonstrators have once again taken to the streets of a regional capital to protest "yet another deeply flawed and flagrantly rigged election."
Protesters in Tbilisi claim 2 November parliamentary elections were manipulated to favor parties supporting Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Opposition rallies, many calling for a re-vote or for Shevardnadze's resignation, have taken place every day since the ballot.
Shevardnadze first came to power following a ruinous civil war that followed the Soviet collapse. But the "relative stability" he brought never led to economic recovery and eventually "turned to stagnation as corruption became pervasive and entrenched." Business groups with links to the presidential family "siphoned off massive sums."
Today, the Georgian economy "is at rock bottom, with foreign investment virtually nonexistent and meager pensions and wages going unpaid for months on end."
Georgia desperately needs "a democratic transfer of power [if] there is to be any hope of the country pulling itself out of the corrupt, cronyist rut it is stuck in and building a functional state." But the editorial says it is "deeply depressing" that Georgians have little hope that rule by the opposition would be any better -- that they, too, would loot the country along with their coterie.
Since most opposition members are themselves disgruntled Shevardnadze supporters, "their political ambitions are justly viewed with profound skepticism."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
"Almost two years after the war, Afghans face growing insecurity, rising troubles with the Taliban and diminishing help from the West," says a "New York Times" editorial.
A draft of a new Afghan Constitution drawn up late last month now "offers a first step toward real elections and a more humane society." But the draft also omits some key points needed to ensure individual rights in a country only recently freed from the oppressive and coercive regime of the Taliban.
The draft specifies that no law can be made that is contrary to Islam and calls for members of the Supreme Court to be educated in either civil law or Islamic law. The paper says this makes it possible for judges to rule based on their interpretations of the Koran rather than on shared civic principles. And there is no specific acknowledgement of the individual rights of women, a proposal the paper calls "a basic need for a country with Afghanistan's painful history."
The United Nations, the United States, and other representatives of the international community "need to push for ensuring the protection of core human rights" in the final constitutional draft, ahead of Afghanistan's constitutional convention in December.
"This constitution must provide an enduring promise to all the Afghan people that their most basic freedoms are inalienable, not to be granted or withdrawn easily by a government, its courts or its religious leaders."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
In light of the latest violence in Iraq, a commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" today looks at the way the U.S. is revising its military and political strategy in the country -- despite the danger that a new approach might ultimately diminish U.S. control over the country's future.
"The signals from Washington are unequivocal," says the paper. "A new strategy is essential." There is no formula for achieving stability in Iraq quickly, since there are many in Iraq intent on preventing its stabilization and who hope to reinstate the old regime by creating chaos.
In the U.S., there are those who declare that they "shall not be intimidated," although there is now frequent talk of speeding up the "Iraqification" of the country and bringing troops home. But quickly handing over authority in order to exit the country sooner has much in common with retreat.
It is evident that security issues will decide Iraq's future. But the "liberators," now the occupying force, cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. Even the French seem to recognize that the moment has come to cooperate and not to insist on UN authority in Iraq.
The "FAZ" sees this as a positive step toward "reinstating a lost partnership." The U.S. should likewise bury the hatchet, for success in Iraq requires solidarity among all the allies.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
The "hastily called" meeting in Washington between the U.S. top civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and administration officials "clearly revealed that the [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration knows its program in Iraq is failing."
Writing in "The New York Times," former Central Intelligence Agency officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, now of the American Enterprise Institute, says the "Iraqification" of the police force has not diminished attacks on the coalition, while Iraqi anger at occupation forces is growing.
The Iraqi Governing Council is now set to become an autonomous provisional government and has pledged to hold national elections. Washington hopes this "will make Iraqis feel more responsible for their own fate, and thus more willing to take over security from coalition forces." But the unelected Governing Council does not have the popular support or unity to be successful, Gerecht says.
In short, "the administration that waged a war for democracy now wants an exit strategy that is not at all dependent upon Iraq's democratic progress."
U.S. officials once recognized "the need to have political reconstruction precede the re-establishment of [an] Iraqi army." But now the U.S. administration is "rushing Iraqis into uniform," showing little concern for the country's long history of civic repression by the security services.
"There may well be no short-term political solution to the guerrilla and terrorist strikes" targeting the coalition. "But the hurried 'Iraqification' of the country's security services makes no sense unless Iraqi democracy is pushed forward at least as quickly."
In light of the urgent meeting called by the White House this week with the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, "Liberation's" Pascal Riche says the U.S. president is getting impatient.
It seems the "Bremer method" -- a political process leading first to a draft Iraqi constitution, then to elections and finally to a transfer of sovereign power -- is not working, or at least not working fast enough to suit Washington.
The United Nations has asked the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), made up of 25 U.S.-appointed representatives, to come up with a timetable for elections and a draft constitution by 15 December. But the IGC is entangled in its own internal ethnic and religious rivalries, further delaying these processes.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Thus Washington and London are now seeking a shortcut to handing power over to Iraqis as soon as possible. Washington is now toying with the idea of a provisional constitution and allowing for the election of a constituent committee before the summer. This committee would appoint a temporary executive and prepare the final constitution.
Having been elected, this committee would be more legitimate than the current Governing Council and could thus be trusted with holding sovereign power in the country.
The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" presents a portrait of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who "is always convinced that he is able to make the world a better place to live in."
The 73-year-old tycoon of Hungarian origin, who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and moved to the U.S. after World War II, made his way from rags to riches which "gave him the feeling that he was God."
Ever ready to express his views, he recently publicly criticized the jailing of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii and demanded the G-8 industrial countries retaliate by expelling Russia from the club. But the U.S. administration was averse to any drastic condemnation of Russia.
However, Kremlin authorities responded to Soros's criticism last week by shutting down the Moscow offices of his foundation. Men in camouflage stormed the offices of the Open Society Institute and began seizing documents and computers, using as an excuse a dispute over rights to the Moscow building.
Soros has retaliated by making a decision to divert his funds from Moscow to give financial support to the U.S. Democratic Party's presidential election campaign. Soros contends that as long as President George W. Bush is in the White House, America will endanger the world.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)