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Western Press Review: Political Change In The Caucasus, Russian Elections, And The 'Afghan Elvis'

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed by press commentary and analysis today are political shifts in the Caucasus; potential Turkish membership in the EU; Russia's 7 December parliamentary elections; the Geneva Accord blueprint for a Mideast peace; and the newly rebuilt tomb of the "Afghan Elvis."


Writing in the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," Thomas de Waal of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London discusses recent political changes in the Caucasus. He says that throughout the region a "new generation is taking charge."

Mikhail Saakashvili, the opposition leader who led a successful bloodless coup against President Eduard Shevardnadze, is widely expected to become Georgia's next president following 4 January elections. Saakashvili was educated at Columbia Law School, was never a member of the Communist Party, and is "intolerant of the old bureaucrats."

Azerbaijan's new president, Ilham Aliyev, took over the post from his father in a much-contested succession. He, too, was educated abroad and is inclined toward the West, but has his father's legacy of KGB ties to contend with.

De Waal says Georgia, Azerbaijan, and neighboring Armenia are strategically significant nations "on the fringes of the Middle East. Sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, they are a potential transmitter of either turmoil or development to the south and east."

And yet Western condemnation of apparent voting irregularities in both Azerbaijan and Georgia has been muted. Western governments have generally issued statements "expressing carefully phrased 'disappointment' at this parody of democracy."

De Waal warns that the resulting disillusion with flawed democratic processes may ultimately send nations such as Azerbaijan on a path "that leads toward the Central Asian dictatorships of Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan."


Dmitrii Furman, a professor at the European Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow, believes the Soviet tradition that regards elections as merely a ritual declaration of loyalty continues in present-day Russia. In Germany's financial paper "Handelsblatt," Furman discusses upcoming 7 December elections to the State Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament).

Furman says the Duma can only become a serious challenge to the Russian leadership if it unites in an unprecedented degree of opposition to the Kremlin. He says that although the Kremlin is likely to achieve absolute endorsement in the election, "the future is likely to be more complicated. The traditional pool of voters will decrease with social and demographic developments. In order to achieve the desired results, the authorities will have to increase their control over the elections and so will eradicate their very purpose."

"In the final analysis," Furman says, "this could lead to the same type of election results as seen in Communist days."


Christoph Bertram in "Die Welt" discusses Turkey's prospects for joining the European Union. He says eventual Turkish membership is the only way to curb terrorism and stabilize the Mideast. However, terrorists are doing their best to make this idea distasteful to the Europeans, who continue to express considerable anxiety over the prospect.

There are many arguments for excluding Turkey from the EU, Bertram says. In the wake of a spate of bombings in Istanbul, he says the idea of Europe sharing responsibility for terrorists active in that country is problematic. Moreover, Turkey's vast population might upset the balance of EU member countries. Most worrisome of all is the fact that a large portion of Turkey is not situated in Europe -- its inclusion in the EU would extend the union's borders to Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

However, these considerations are the very reasons why the EU should embrace Turkey, Bertram says. The Middle East currently constitutes a collection of fragile systems in a region fraught with conflict that is increasingly a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. The prospect of EU membership would serve as the strongest motivation possible to modernize Turkey. After all, says Bertram, a progressive, democratic and economically flourishing Turkey is central to Europe's interests.


In a contribution to the secular "The Christian Science Monitor," Brenda Shaffer of Harvard University's Caspian Studies Program says the United States is now paying some much-deserved attention to the Caucasus. The current trip to the region by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld highlights Washington's key strategic interests in the area, including securing overflight rights for ongoing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the continued construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Also on Rumsfeld's agenda was the preservation of U.S. influence in Caucasus "at a time of expanding Russian leverage in the region," Schaffer says. The peaceful overthrow of Georgian President Shevardnadze in late November -- and Russia's key role in convincing the long-serving politician to step down -- further underscored Russia's considerable influence in the South Caucasus.

Shaffer suggests that Washington's best strategy for pursuing its interests would be to undertake "joint, vigorous action with Russia to resolve conflicts that afflict the region." Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a vicious war over Nagorno-Karabakh and a post-independence civil war in Georgia led to the "de facto secession" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These conflicts deserve attention, as a renewal of violence would hinder economic and social progress throughout the Caucasus.

Washington should adopt a policy that "recognizes and incorporates the key role that Russia plays and will continue to play in the area." Shaffer says, "If Russia does not view the peace arrangements as minimally contributing to its own security, it will work to undermine them."


Several items in the media this week have discussed the newly rebuilt tomb of Afghanistan's "pop legend," Ahmed Zahir. Zahir, known as the "Afghan Elvis," was killed in a car crash in 1979.

"The son of a prime minister who played for the poor, singing Persian love poetry to an electric guitar, Zahir represents for many Afghans the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when their country was at its most prosperous and whole," says an item in "The Economist."

Although he was a Pashtun himself, Zahir sang mostly in Persian and appealed to Afghans from across a broad spectrum of tribes.

"The Economist" writes: "Legend has it that Zahir's father initially objected to the young Ahmed's calling, but blessed it after strolling with his son through Kabul." The magazine adds, "More commoners hailed the pop singer than the prime minister."

But the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996 brought an end to the country's enjoyment of music, and Zahir's tomb was attacked with rockets by the country's new ascetic rulers. Five months ago, fans of the singing icon rebuilt the tomb, erecting a small concrete dome atop six legs on a slope in the Kabul valley. Thousands have since visited the new memorial, and Zahir's music is once again free to float through Afghan streets.


Writing in the London-based "Financial Times," John Whitbeck says the so-called Geneva Accord on a plan for Mideast peace "deserves the active and whole-hearted support of everyone who cares about Israelis, Palestinians or peace."

The new plan, Whitbeck says, is a "prodigious, detailed document. It contains all the fundamental substantive compromises and trade-offs that have long been recognized as necessary for any negotiated peace agreement to be conceivably acceptable both to most Israelis and most Palestinians, as well as carefully considered procedures and timelines for implementation. If both peoples simultaneously had governments that were sincerely determined to achieve peace, this is precisely the sort of document one would expect to emerge from their negotiations."

Of course, he says, "neither side would realize all its dreams" under the plan. But it does offer a new, "promising way forward. [Delay] in implementing it will not improve the choices, but only add to the toll of death and destruction -- and not only in Israel and Palestine."


A commentary in "The Boston Globe" by Jeff Jacoby takes quite another view of the Geneva document. While international figures from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to former South African President Nelson Mandela have lauded the agreement, the Israeli government has soundly condemned the document.

"As well it should," Jacoby writes. "The premise of the Geneva agreement is that Israeli surrender will bring Mideast peace. It would require Israel to relinquish land, weaken its security, and yield tangible assets to the Palestinians. In exchange, the Palestinians would pledge to stop killing Israelis."

Jacoby calls this "the 1993 Oslo formula all over again: Israel trades concessions on the ground for unenforceable Arab promises of peace."

During negotiations on the Oslo peace agreement between former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jacoby says Israel "paid the steep price Oslo demanded." It recognized Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), gave up Gaza and the West Bank, and "agreed to the creation of a Palestinian militia." But Jacoby says "the violence and bloodlust didn't end. Far from ushering in a new era of peace, Oslo launched the worst decade of terrorism in Israel's history."

Jacoby writes: "All the cheering in Geneva notwithstanding, [the] plan is not a blueprint for peace but for a cataclysmic war."


A commentary in the "Los Angeles Times" by Andrew Cockburn discusses recent suggestions that dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous states along religious and ethnic lines might be a viable solution to the thorny dilemma of dividing power in the country.

Cockburn, who recently returned from covering Iraq, says several outside observers have suggested that Iraq cannot work as a unified state because it was artificially created 80 years ago by the British, who combined three provinces of the Ottoman Empire into one autonomous state.

The Shi'as in the south, Kurds in the north, and the so-called "Sunni triangle" could each achieve relative autonomy by being divided into "statelets," say some observers.

But Cockburn says most Iraqis find such suggestions "ridiculous." Some argue that Iraq has been a multiethnic, multireligious state for millennia. This multiethnicity "is hardly unique," he says. And most nation-states today "are to some degree artificial, having been created by human design."

Cockburn cites Hussein Shahristani, an adviser to Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as saying interethnic conflict in Iraq has mostly taken place at the behest of dictatorial governments, rather than based on popular will.

Cockburn additionally points out that Iraq's diverse communities have often come together as Iraqis first to fight for a common national cause, whether resisting British colonial rule or during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

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