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Western Press Review: The Afghan Constitution, U.S. Policy In Iran, And Continuing Support For Serbia

Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several major dailies today discuss the agreement reached on a new constitution by Afghanistan's grand assembly, or Loya Jirga. Weeks of contentious debate finally led to a settlement on 4 January that paves the way for elections to be held later this year. Other topics of interest today include the inconsistencies of U.S. policy on Iran, presidential elections in Georgia on 4 Januray, and the importance of continued international aid and support for Serbia.


An editorial today says Afghanistan's new constitution, agreed by its Loya Jirga (grand assembly) on 4 January after weeks of debate, "offers hope that the beleaguered nation can finally evolve into a modern, democratic state." Nevertheless, its challenges are just beginning. Now, the paper says, comes the difficult part: "Turning a decent constitution into a working democracy."

The paper lauds the new Afghan document for specifically ensuring equal rights for women: "That is clear progress after years under the Taliban, which did not believe in women's education or even adequate health care." And as a nation comprising many ethnic groups speaking several languages, Afghanistan has also granted official respect for tongues other than its dominant Pashtu and Dari.

But the rights guaranteed by the constitution could still be circumvented by "powerful interests" in the country, or curtailed by future laws. Future presidents or parliament could pass legislation that would "shut down news organizations or limit other freedoms."

And a judiciary that relies on "conservative Islamic judges rather than on those trained in civil law could be overly restrictive in its judgments." Even with "the best of intentions," the paper says, protecting civic freedoms "will be difficult in a chaotic and increasingly unsafe nation."
Nevertheless, its challenges are just beginning. Now, the paper says, comes the difficult part: "Turning a decent constitution into a working democracy."

Afghanistan's constitution cannot be implemented without continuing support from the international community, and specifically the United States. "The New York Times" says future elections should be conducted under the guidance of the United Nations -- but Washington and its allies must "help provide the political support and military security to [make] elections possible."


"The Christian Science Monitor" says the election of Mikheil Saakashvili to the Georgian presidency "was not only a victory for this poor and splintered nation in the Caucasus. It showed that Moscow and Washington can work together in a delicate power balance to allow a vulnerable small country to express its desire for a workable democracy." Both Washington and Moscow have considerable strategic interests in the Caucasus republic. And its 4.4 million citizens have often been "pawns" in the "great game over pipelines for Caspian Sea oil."

In a country divided along ethnic lines and plagued by regional separatism, some provincial leaders refused to take part in the vote, or even to recognize Tbilisi's new president-elect. The Boston-based daily says Saakashvili will now need more "money and advice from the U.S. and non-interference from Russia to unify his nation."

Saakashvili proved his "democratic credentials" in leading the peaceful protest that led to the resignation of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, following a much-criticized and fraudulent parliamentary vote in November. "Now Saakashvili must use this reborn democracy to further distribute power to the autonomous regions and boost a dormant economy in order to keep Georgia whole."

The paper calls for "[continuing] benign foreign influence" in Georgia to help the nation on its path to liberal reform. It specifically calls on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to use its authority to "help Georgia prosper."


The "Financial Times" calls the agreement on an Afghan constitution a "minor triumph." But it points out that a constitution is "only a framework and, in the case of Afghanistan, hardly self-supporting." As Afghans now look to the prospect of elections as guaranteed by the new text, they "are still dependent on the United Nations, U.S. and NATO troops, and foreign aid." Over two years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the situation today "underlines how slow and difficult nation-building can be."

Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai remains in a "precarious political position." The "unfortunate reality" remains that, although the constitution calls for a strong central presidency, Karzai's authority does not extend much beyond Kabul. Outside the capital, "power lies with warlords who built up their fiefs during the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s and now sustain them with opium money and purloined customs revenue."

Thus, "the prospect of free and fair presidential elections being held as planned this June -- with parliamentary elections following within a year -- look rather dim. Clearly, Afghanistan will continue to need foreign aid and troops." The British daily calls on Washington to "live up to its promise to increase aid for Afghanistan" in the new U.S. budget, due out later this month. As for NATO, the alliance must "maintain its focus on peacekeeping in Afghanistan."


Writing in France's "Le Figaro," columnist Pierre Rousselin says the chances for rapprochement between India and Pakistan are now more promising. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met for over an hour yesterday on the sidelines of a South Asian summit in Islamabad, their first meeting since July 2001. And Rousselin says a dialogue may have now begun that gives cause for real optimism.

First, he says, since the 11 September 2001 attacks, the United States has exerted constant pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Al-Qaeda and take concrete steps against Islamic militants in Kashmir -- which is also a main demand of New Delhi's. Inside India, Vajpayee now faces an election year -- and positioning himself as a peacemaker and statesman would be a boost in a country in which economic development is beginning to eclipse other considerations.

Last April, Vajpayee extended a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan. And in December, Musharraf ended his demands for a referendum to be held on Kashmir among its majority Muslim population. But both leaders continue to face hard-line nationalists in their respective nations that are opposed to making any concessions.

Musharraf is, by far, the more vulnerable of the two leaders, having escaped two assassination attempts in December. Rousselin says peace in Kashmir would not only be the best insurance policy for Musharraf, it would also be the best electoral strategy for Vajpayee.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says U.S. policy in Iran has for years "oscillated between extremes of hostility [and] overly solicitous diplomacy." The only constant has been the "poor results" of both approaches.

Iran's attitude toward the United States, however, has remained more consistent. "Tehran knows it must avoid overt provocation of a superpower, and as American troops have deployed all around it, it has also recognized its interest in cooperating with Washington on certain security issues," whether in neighboring Iraq or Afghanistan. "But the conservative clerics who still dominate Iranian politics continue to regard the United States as a mortal enemy and aim, over time, to drive it out of the neighborhood -- while positioning Iran to emerge as a regional power." While the clerical hard-liners are willing to bargain with Washington, they are "unlikely to welcome a genuine rapprochement."

The paper says a "sober" assessment of U.S. policy "would recognize these realities," and accept that a change of regime in Iran is unlikely for the foreseeable future. "Shunning the Iranian government entirely [leads] nowhere," the paper says. It should be possible to negotiate with Tehran on such issues as Al-Qaeda, Iraq, and Afghanistan, without undermining U.S. President George W. Bush's "strong rhetorical support for Iran's pro-democracy forces or his [declaration] that the United States would not tolerate Iran becoming a nuclear power."


Writing in the "Financial Times," James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation's international security and defense center says for the past several years, the United States has tended to ignore developments in the Balkans while European nations prepare to "assume the burdens of stabilizing the region unaided," regarding the region "as tomorrow's test case for Europe's new security and defense institutions."

At the end of this year, NATO will hand over peacekeeping duties in Bosnia to the European Union. Early 2005 will see the opening of the debate on Kosovo's final status. But these plans have already caused the Balkans to become "decidedly more unsettled," says Dobbins. "Just last week, ultranationalists made big gains in Serbia's parliamentary elections. [Four] of the competing parties nominated indicted war criminals as candidates. Two [are] headed by prisoners in The Hague," a reference to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj, both accused of war crimes. Dobbins notes that nationalist parties also made strong showings against democratically minded reformers in Bosnian and Croatian elections last year.

In light of these developments, Dobbins says Washington and the EU should review their policies in the region. Serbia "has not received aid of the magnitude that the U.S. and Europe provided to [post-conflict] Bosnia or Kosovo." And it makes little sense for the international community "to impose justice in The Hague if it is not making a commensurate effort to promote democratic reform in Belgrade" by supplying "generous aid for post-conflict reconstruction."


Britain's "The Guardian" says while Georgia's ousted leader Eduard Shevardnadze may be "safely out of the way," the country's "infamously corrupt and inefficient state structures remain in place." The black economy accounts for up to 60 percent of all economic activity, the average wage is roughly $20 a month, and avoiding taxes and dodging utility bills is "standard practice."

Moreover, bureaucrats routinely "plunder state revenues" and foreign debt has reached $1.75 billion. "If all this were not bad enough," the paper says, Georgia's "territorial integrity is threatened by separatists [in] three of its regions."

As for President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, "The Guardian" says he is plagued by "inexperience" and what some consider an "impetuous nationalism" that could alienate Georgia's ethnic minorities. But Saakashvili has been "quick to recognize the sheer scale of the task ahead." And he will need "all the help he can get."

The British daily calls on the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and international financial institutions to help Georgia on its path to liberal reform. "But the main burden must fall on the U.S.," it says. "It was Washington, after all, that in effect [undermined] Mr. Shevardnadze, groomed and indirectly funded the democratic opposition, and whose strategic, security and oil interests dictated the process."

The paper says this time, the "lack of financial follow-through that has often characterized U.S. interventions in the past must not be repeated in Georgia."