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Western Press Review: Not-So-Liberal Democracies, And South Asian Economic Secularism

Prague, 8 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the press today takes a look at some of the world's newest democracies, liberal and otherwise; South Asia's growing wealth and secularist trends; a new report warning of the severe effects of global warming; and building a more democratic civil society in Iran, among other issues.


Writing in the "Financial Times," columnist Quentin Peel points out that democratic processes do not always lead to liberal outcomes. As Afghanistan lauds the agreement on a new constitution and Georgia celebrates the victory of President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, Peel points out that one must not confuse "purely electoral democracy -- the right to vote, and the establishment of parliamentary institutions -- with fully fledged liberal democracy."

A true liberal democracy, he says, "evolves over years, not overnight from a new constitution," and involves "respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, separation of religious and secular authority, civilian control of the military, and rights of assembly, property, belief and the like."

The process is "long and unpredictable," says Peel. And in its early stages, democracy is often linked to nationalism and populism. Recent elections in Russia and Serbia share "a disturbing common theme." A 28 December ballot in Serbia brought the greatest gains for the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, who is on trial for war crimes at The Hague. A "much less democratic" December parliamentary vote in Russia also brought losses for liberal reformers and consolidated power for the Kremlin.

All this tends to give democracy a bad name, Peel says. "For most people in these 'new' democracies, life has not improved. High hopes of what the 'Western' system might provide have been dashed. So they are opting increasingly for a nasty brand of nationalism: anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant and anti-minority groups at home."


Writing in "The Irish Times," analyst Anatole Kaletsky says the rapprochement launched between India and Pakistan this week in Islamabad "is potentially a far more important event than anything that has happened in the past few years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or even the skies over New York and Washington." He calls recent gains in relations between those two countries "the latest unexpected spin-off from September 11."

Another result of the September 2001 attacks has been -- ironically -- "the waning of religion as a political force," Kaletsky says. There is a growing "rejection of religion as a political principle in both Pakistan's and India's growing middle class." An "upsurge of economic confidence" is taking place throughout Asia, as a "tectonic shift in the global economy" moves its center of gravity from the West to the East.

Citizens in India and Pakistan now see "that prosperity for their families within a generation is not an impossible dream." Although hard-line elements remain active in both Islamabad and New Delhi, the "political currents in both countries have been moving strongly against the religious fanatics." Kaletsky remarks that consumption and trade "have a way of transforming both culture and diplomacy."

He says along with a rise in middle-class values "come demands for economically productive secular education as opposed to Wahhabi-style religious indoctrination, and an interest in belonging to the global community rather than being ostracized as a pariah state. Economic prosperity may not guarantee Western-style democracy, [but] at least it creates a preference for peace over war."


The lead editorial in the British daily today says, "If the world needed a fresh wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, then it got it yesterday with the release of a report by distinguished international scientists predicting that climate change will threaten extinction for a quarter of all land animals and plants by 2050."

The report's findings, published in the journal "Nature," are based on a mid-range forecast of future effects and were prepared by "the largest collaboration of scientists ever" to look into climate change. The paper says the report "seems particularly authoritative and its conclusions have even surprised some of the scientists taking part." The build-up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, caused mainly by human industrial activity, is widely believed to be responsible for the rising temperatures.

"The Guardian" says "[the] usual response to the problem of global warming is to blame governments." But individuals can also have a significant effect in combating climate change. For example, the paper says, if every driver cut back on car journeys by nine miles a week, carbon dioxide emissions from traffic would fall by 13 percent. As the British daily puts it, "Is that too much to ask?"


A contribution by Bagher Asadi, a member of the UN secretary-general's panel on civic society, discusses Iran's failing reform efforts -- despite the dominance of reformists in the Iranian parliament. Asadi says the failure of his country's reform movement "to make good on its promises -- a result not only of the efforts of the anti-reform coalition but also of the reformers' own lack of vision and vigor -- has led to a general state of despair and resignation." He says at stake in upcoming (20 February) parliamentary elections "is nothing less than the future of Iran's government structure."

Even if the reform movement maintains its majority in parliament, Asadi says "it is vital that all [the] political forces dedicated to meaningful, long-term reform in Iranian society undergo a substantive soul-searching." In the end, he says, what has been lacking has been "a systematic attempt to build a civil society. Had the political forces in the country been more conscious of the instrumental role civil society plays in the institutionalization of politics, we would have fared much better in establishing more durable institutions and political structures."

Asadi says until Iran develops "a solid base for a robust, dynamic civil society, we will not be able to make political achievements irreversible. Hindsight tells us that achieving comprehensive national development, which has thus far eluded us despite our oil riches, depends on achieving true democracy."


Author Helena Cobban says in the run-up to war in Iraq, the U.S. administration chose which intelligence it would lend credence to, "in a way that is quite unacceptable in any democracy." Writing in "The Christian Science Monitor," she adds that shifting the rationale for war from stemming the alleged threat posed by Iraqi weapons to that of bringing democracy to Iraq is rewriting history. Cobban says the U.S. president "draws on a love of democracy that is deeply felt by most Americans when he talks of his desire to bring democracy to oppressed people elsewhere. Yet his conduct in international affairs last year was missing essential democratic elements: respectful interaction with peoples and leaders of other nations and evidence of honesty and accountability at home."

Cobban suggests a serious re-evaluation is needed in the year ahead to evaluate the mistakes made. She asks: "How did U.S. leaders get the facts about Iraq's weapons programs so very wrong? Why was the planning for the aftermath of the war so very flawed? Why was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld allowed to do so much to alienate key U.S. allies overseas, and to undermine the guiding principles of the UN?"

Americans themselves "need to think long and hard about the quality of their nation's ties to the rest of the world," she says. "Global democratization is progressing, and the more democratic the world and its governance become, the more U.S. citizens will have to rely on its nation's relationship with others for their own security and well-being."


In a contribution to the French daily, Yves Tomic says gains made by Serbia's nationalist parties in 28 December elections serve as a stark warning to the country's reformist forces, but do not necessarily indicate a surging tide of Serbian nationalism.

Tomic, a researcher at the Library of Contemporary International Documentation (la Bibliotheque de documentation internationale contemporaine) at the University of Paris, says to begin with, voter participation was low at 58.8 percent. The Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, who is now on trial for war crimes at The Hague, came out in the lead with 27.6 percent of the vote. But this represents only 16.2 percent of the electorate, Tomic points out. Support for the Socialist Party of former Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, also on trial at The Hague, was marginal at 7.6 percent or only 4.5 percent of the electorate. Thus, Tomic says, while the results are disturbing, the gains of Serbian nationalists are "far from an insurrection."

The relative success of the Radical Party can trace its origin to Serbia's persistent social ills, such as high unemployment and poverty. Widespread disillusionment with the corruption and infighting of the reformist coalition government was also a factor, Tomic says. Nevertheless, Serbia's democratic parties obtained a total of 41.8 percent of the vote, or 24.5 percent of the electorate.

All things considered, the election did not bring forth a clear winner. But the vote did serve as a clear warning to Serbia's reformist forces, which have governed Serbia, often arrogantly, since the fall of Milosevic. Caught up in their internal conflicts, Tomic says the reformists forgot about Serbia's citizens and their desire for a better life.


Writing from Moscow in Belgium's "Le Soir," Benjamin Quenelle says the "Chechen specter" haunted the celebration of Orthodox Christmas in Russia yesterday. Every year the holiday week sees Muscovites living in slow motion, says Quenelle. Parents and children crowd the entrances of theaters, and spruce trees are in wide display as a symbol of the end and beginning of the year. Traditional histories are retold on stage and chocolates distributed among the crowd.

But this year celebrants had to pass through security checkpoints and undergo bag searches, he says. Just last month, in the run-up to the holidays, an explosion killed six in front of the Kremlin -- the suspected work of a female suicide bomber. So dominating the festivities this year was the fear of a possible attack. Even the master of ceremonies at a Moscow circus interrupted the show at one point to ask the audience to glance around for suspicious packages. But the daily interruptions and jostling scenes at entranceways everywhere are now part of life for Muscovites, Quenelle says.