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Western Press Review: Russia's Waning Influence in the Caucasus, Putin's Re-Election Bid, Ukrainian Reform

Prague, 12 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics being discussed in some of the major dailies today are Russia's waning influence in the Caucasus, the Kremlin's tight-fisted control of national politics ahead of presidential elections in March, encouraging liberal political reform in Ukraine, and the high hopes pinned on Georgian President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili: Are they too high to be realized?


Julius Strauss of "The Daily Telegraph" says Russia today is losing sway in the Caucasus, traditionally within its sphere of influence, and the United States is moving in to fill the void. Russian rule came to the region in the late 18th century, when imperial troops offered to help fend off attacks from the Ottoman Turks and Persians. And Russia "swiftly established the infrastructure of empire," Strauss says. Following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Red Army crushed revolts in the region and the area was divided into Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. But after the Soviet collapse, Russian domination of the region began to diminish. All three republics declared independence in 1991.

Strauss says today, "for the first time in more than two centuries, the Russians are being pushed out of the southern Caucasus, one country at a time." And wherever the Russians have been pushed out, "the Americans have moved in to fill the gap. The U.S. military is training the Georgian army and there are rumors of air bases being planned in Azerbaijan."

For many Russian soldiers, Strauss says, "such humiliation at the hands of their Cold War enemy is difficult to swallow." But citizens of Georgia and Azerbaijan "see their future as wedded to the U.S. and Europe. The younger generation is learning English rather than Russian." Only Armenia seems happy to continue hosting Russian troops as protection against traditional rivals Turkey and Azerbaijan.


In her monthly column for "The Washington Post," Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center discusses Russia's upcoming presidential elections in mid-March. "[In] today's Russia," she says, "all politics is tightly overseen by the Kremlin minders." President Vladimir Putin is "virtually uncontested," while the country's fledgling democratic processes have been "dramatically compromised." The Kremlin "has effective leverage over party leaders: It may easily strip any party of financing." And Lipman says Putin's so-called election " 'rivals' were picked by his aides to better set off the Russian president. As a result, the forthcoming race had begun to look like an absurd joke."

Lipman writes: "It is broadly understood that any of these contenders may be removed from the race or withdraw his nomination should the Kremlin deem his participation undesirable. Another understanding is that Putin will not humiliate himself by participating in political debates with such puny competitors."

The Kremlin was nevertheless concerned that such "a noncompetitive and politically meaningless election" might fail to inspire voters and lead to low turnout. But the announcement that prominent politician Irina Khakamada of the Union of Rightist Forces will run for president seems to have solved this problem. "If a liberal politician such as Khakamada takes the election seriously, it's harder for critics to dismiss it as meaningless" and organize a boycott, Lipman says.

Khakamada knows that, for this reason, her campaign "suits the Kremlin." And ultimately, "she can in no way be a true competitor to Putin," as her party received less than 4 percent of the vote in December's parliamentary elections.


Writing in the U.S. daily, the "Los Angeles Times," David Holley says for Georgian President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, "the fervent support of vast numbers of citizens [may] be both a blessing and a curse."

Following a "stunning" 96 percent election victory on 4 January, Holley says expectations "may now be so high that they can only be crushed." In a nation where "emotion sometimes matters as much as logic," Saakashvili built his reputation as a risk-taker and a crusader against corruption. As justice minister, his high-profile accusations of colleagues for using public funds to build palatial personal homes -- impossible on their meager government salaries -- really launched his high-profile career, but earned condemnation from then President Eduard Shevardnadze. After resigning from his ministerial post, Holley says Saakashvili decided to position himself within the political opposition, a niche that was largely vacant.

Many Georgians are today "convinced of Saakashvili's sincerity and bravery." In addition to tackling widespread corruption, Saakashvili has "pledged to try to bring the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold." The breakaway regions have been de facto autonomous since the early 1990s, "and no one thinks Georgian unity can easily be restored."

Holley cites Alexander Rondeli of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies as saying 80-90 percent of politicians begin as public heroes and end up as criminals. Let's hope Saakashvili is "among the 10 percent who are successful," says Rondeli.


An editorial in "The Daily Telegraph" discusses the decision by Iran's conservative clerical leadership to bar some 80 reformist members of the Majlis, or consultative assembly, from running for re-election next month. "The Daily Telegraph" says this move will undermine the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections, and is likely to evoke "real anger" among the Iranian populace.

The Islamic Republic of Iran "is a state with a split personality: a unique combination of democracy and theocracy." On the surface, the "Telegraph" says, Iran "is one of the few functioning democracies in the Middle East. However, under the revolutionary system instituted by Ayatollah Khomeini, [both] parliament and government are subordinate [to] bodies controlled by the clergy, which exercises power in rather the same indirect way that the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union." Although reformist President Mohammed Khatami was directly elected, "ultimate power resides not with him, but with the supreme leader, Ayatollah [Khamenei]. Clerics keep a tight grip on the Majlis, whose membership and legislation are subject to the approval of a clerical Guardians Council."

Now, it seems the conservatives are seeking "to capitalize on disillusionment with the failures of the reformists. If so," the paper says, "they may have miscalculated. Most Iranians are critical of Khatami; but for Khamenei they have contempt. This attempt to rig elections might just be the last straw."


"Le Figaro's" Renaud Girard says for the past two days, the village of Pale was virtually under siege as German members of NATO's Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia searched once again for indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic. The troops were acting on a tip that Karadzic may have been injured and was seeking help at his old base town. Pale, a winter sports resort, was the Serbian headquarters in Bosnia during the civil wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Acting with the aid of Republika Srpska police, NATO troops searched hospitals, the villa inhabited by the Karadzic family, as well as a church, and a cultural center, all with one goal in mind -- the arrest of Europe's most famous fugitive. Girard says an SFOR spokesman was "self-congratulatory" in a press conference held in the snow yesterday afternoon. The young British lieutenant spoke of the success of the operation, based on the joint cooperation between Serbian police and SFOR. But Girard says it is difficult to understand how the operation can be termed a success if Karadzic remains at large.

Politically, however, the operation was significant for the message it sent. For the first time, police in Republika Srpska were completely involved in an operation directed against their former leader, who is viewed by many as a national hero for defending Serbian interests during the war.


"The Washington Post" discusses the U.S. administration's erratic support for liberal reform in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, discussing the administration's foreign policy vision for 2004 in a "New York Times" op-ed piece, promised to support the progress of "freedom" in many "new" and "fragile" democracies. The "Post" says it hopes such support "will extend beyond the rhetoric that too often has substituted for genuine democratic advocacy during President [George W.] Bush's first three years" -- even when "the United States has interests that make toleration of autocracy tempting."

The paper says U.S. engagement, "might prove decisive" in several former Soviet republics. Many, it says, "are struggling democracies; others are ruled by autocrats. Almost all are under threat from Moscow's resurgent imperialism." And the country "closest to the tipping point" may be Ukraine.

The paper says Ukraine has "an electoral democracy tainted by corruption [and] an economy warped by clans of oligarchs." President Leonid Kuchma "has been linked to corruption and serious human rights violations." Much of the population is Western-oriented and aspires to integration with Western institutions. But in recent months, Kuchma has moved instead toward renewing cooperation with the Kremlin.

Now Kuchma seems to be looking for ways to stay in power when his term ends later this year. Most polls seem to favor the election victory of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko if the vote were freely held. "The question is whether the Bush administration will work with Western Europe to mount an effective counter" to a subverted election, says the paper. "Freedom could be consolidated this year in Ukraine or slip away."

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