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Western Press Review: Moscow's Policy Toward Georgia, Iran's Reformists, Balkan Progress

Items in several news dailies today discuss Russian-Georgian relations, as Moscow considers its policy toward the new regime in Tbilisi. According to one regional daily, Washington is warily watching the debate to determine whether its interests in the Caucasus will be challenged by new Russian attempts to exert influence in the region. Other topics include renewing calls for reform in the Balkans, the parliamentary standoff in Iran and predictions for a changing Russia in 2004.


Writing in the regional daily "Eurasia View," Russian and Eurasian affairs analyst Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation says U.S. officials are warily watching the debate in Moscow over how Russia should deal with the new Westward-leaning regime in Georgia. The landslide victory of Mikheil Saakashvili in presidential elections early this month "has prompted policymakers in Moscow to re-examine Russian foreign policy" toward its former Soviet neighbors.

There are two competing viewpoints vying for supremacy in policy circles, Cohen says.

One maintains "that Russia does not stand to benefit from the geopolitical competition with the United States in the Caucasus and Central Asia." Moreover, a confrontational stance toward Georgia could bring renewed conflict between Tbilisi and Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia, Adjaria, and South Ossetia. Thus, its advocates say, it is better "for Moscow's own security aims to use its influence to promote rapprochement among the Georgia government and the three autonomous regions."

The other policy prescription seeking currency in Moscow contends that Georgia's new president, the U.S.-educated Saakashvili, is an "implacable opponent" of Russia and Russian interests. The writer says, "Accordingly, Moscow should do nothing that helps to stabilize his administration."

Cohen says U.S. analysts "do not expect Russia to make any significant moves in the Caucasus or Central Asia until after the Russian presidential election" in March. Nevertheless, he writes, "the rhetoric of some Russian MPs indicates that an influential policy-making segment is disinclined to adopt a more cooperative tone with Russia's neighbors, in particular Georgia."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" in an editorial says the election of Saakashvili to the Georgian presidency has encouraged the hope that his country, "bedeviled by political instability and poverty," may now take serious strides toward reform. But whether his government will be successful, the editorial says, depends in large part on whether it can "tackle corruption, adopt measures that encourage business and growth, and inspire foreign investment." The newspaper says "one other major factor looms large over Georgia's future prospects: Russia."

The editorial says Saakashvili has repeatedly emphasized that he wants to maintain amicable relations with Moscow, although he seeks to align Georgia with NATO and other Western and European institutions. The president-elect also wants Moscow to close its remaining military bases in its former satellite. However, "having been a dominating presence in the Caucasus since the 18th century, Georgia's big neighbor doesn't take kindly to suggestions it mind its own business."

The paper notes that recent Tbilisi-Moscow talks have yielded little progress, "though Georgia's new leadership has tread carefully around Moscow's sensitivities, no doubt mindful of the fact that Russia effectively controls both electricity and gas supplies to cash-strapped Georgia."

The editorial says Georgia now "has its best chance in decades [of] rising out of the cycle of political violence and perpetual poverty." Yet Moscow "seems happier to have a basket case as a neighbor." The "Journal" calls on the United States and Georgia's other Western allies "to do their utmost" to help Georgia's new leadership implement reforms while avoiding undue influence from Moscow.


Writing in "The Moscow Times," independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says the "simmering distrust" between Moscow and Tbilisi over Kremlin support for rebels in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia "is aggravated by the continued presence of Russian military bases on the Georgian-Turkish border [left] over from the Cold War." Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged in 1999 that the bases would be dismantled by January 2004. The writer says that deadline "has now passed, but the promise has not been kept."

Felgenhauer says Russia's bases in Georgia "could be closed in several months without extraordinary effort or expense." He says Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's suggestion that it would take 11 more years to shut down the bases and relocate troops is "ridiculous."

The writer says the Russian military's proposed timeframe "is blackmail," and "a clear sign that Russia does not want to close the bases at all."

In fact, he says, the Kremlin is hoping "that in 10 years a pro-Moscow government may be installed in Tbilisi that will sign a treaty to keep the bases permanently; or that Georgia will disintegrate and semi-independent pro-Moscow fiefdoms will be created" in its place. "In many respects," he says, the breakaway regions of Adjaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia "are already such fiefdoms."

Felgenhauer says Russia's main strategic goal in the region is "to create a Georgia fully dependent on Moscow, while the old bases stand guard preventing Georgia from detaching itself from the Soviet landmass."


An editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor" calls the Iranian regime an "awkward mix of democracy and theocracy." It says the conservative Muslim clerics that sit on the Guardians Council "overplayed their hand this week in a losing battle with elected reformers" serving in the nation's parliament. The council barred 80 reformist MPs from running for re-election next month, a move the paper calls "a desperate act, and a clear sign that the self-appointed heirs to the 1979 Islamic Revolution are willing to risk a popular revolt over their clumsy power play." The paper says the march toward democracy in Iran is "unstoppable."

The editorial says the toughest challenge for Tehran's conservative clerics is facing "the resentments of jobless youth -- more than two-thirds of Iranians are under 30." It adds that if the Guardians Council does not back down and allow the parliamentarians to run, a serious backlash may ensue. "This is the biggest political showdown in Tehran in the quarter century since the revolution," the "Monitor" says. "While both sides may compromise, that will be difficult: The stakes are high in determining who holds the upper hand in negotiating with a U.S. eager to solve a number of issues." But Iran's "real battle" will be "finding an interpretation of Islam that can coexist with Western-style democracy."


"The New York Times" in an editorial says, "Iran's religious establishment is trying to grab full control of the next parliament by arbitrarily disqualifying thousands of candidates, many of them leading reformists." It says the attempted exclusion of 80 legislators seeking re-election would "eliminate political competition in scores of contests, handing back to religious conservatives the parliamentary majority that voters overwhelmingly denied them four years ago." The editorial says that, although many Iranians have been "demoralized by how little the reformers have accomplished, they should firmly reject such a travesty of democracy."

"The New York Times" says although the reformists, led by President Mohammed Khatami, have been "thwarted at every turn," they "represent Iran's best near-term hope for peaceful democratic change." Those in parliament have tried, the editorial says, "to curb torture, limit political prosecutions, expand press freedom and reduce the power of unelected authorities. The clerical conservatives, by contrast, are a politically exhausted force. They have woefully mismanaged the economy and kept the country estranged from its neighbors and trading partners."

The newspaper says both reformers and conservatives "now more or less agree that Iran needs to begin finding ways to mend fences with the world." But, it adds, Tehran's hard-liners may believe that "if they offer Washington enough concessions on limiting nuclear programs and ending support for terrorists, America will lose interest in pressing for Iranian democracy." The paper calls on the U.S. administration to prove that such "cynicism" about American motives is "misplaced."


In a contribution to "The Moscow Times," political analyst Andrei Piontkovskii shares some observations on Russia and predictions for what lies ahead in 2004. Russia, under the administration of President Vladimir Putin -- or "Putinism," as Piontkovskii calls it -- is now at "the final, highest stage of Russia's brand of criminal, bureaucratic capitalism." He calls it is a form of capitalism run by police and bureaucrats with the head-of-state in charge. It replaces the oligarchs of the past "with new 'patriotic' ex-security service operatives," Putin's former colleagues in the KGB. But the real problem is Putinism's "utter ineffectiveness...[rather] than correct the defects of Russian capitalism -- the merger and criminalization of money and power, institutionalized corruption -- it only intensifies them."

Piontkovskii says this model "is incapable of ensuring stable growth. It will not allow Russia to overcome its terrible social stratification or to achieve the breakthrough needed before a postindustrial society can emerge here. This model of peripheral capitalism dooms Russia to economic degradation, marginalization, and ultimately to collapse."

Piontkovskii predicts that by the end of 2004, Russia's relations with the United States and the European Union "will be chillier than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union." But officially, "this will be described as defending Russia's national interests."

The writer says Moscow will turn its attention to re-establishing its influence over its former Soviet republics in a "fever of neo-imperialism." The administration of Georgia's president-elect Mikheil Saakashvili "will be labeled anti-Russian, and all the traditional measures will be taken to destabilize it." But, Piontkovskii says, Russian politicians "will fail to understand that their neo-imperial impulses can elicit nothing but rejection in the former Soviet republics."


A contribution to "The New York Times" by Balkan affairs analyst Laura Silber of the Open Society Institute is reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune." Silber says, "Preoccupied with Iraq and waging the 'war on terrorism,' Washington seems oblivious to a backslide in the [Balkan] region."

She writes: "In Serbia, the same men who released a virulent strain of ethnic nationalism more than a decade ago are back, elected to parliament on December 28." And last month, she says, "Croatia's voters returned to power the same rightist party whose leaders took part in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia a decade ago."

The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina "is also grim." A new constitution is urgently needed to replace the one set up by the 1995 Dayton agreement, which established a joint state divided "by layers of overlapping and contradictory constitutions, laws and administrations." She says this current "dysfunction is dangerous and expensive. And no sober mind would pull NATO troops out until it is fixed." Meanwhile, she says, determining the final status of Kosovo is a "time bomb ticking under the Balkan body politic."

Silber says developments like these "portend the kind of trouble that can make ruins and ashes out of the money that has been poured into the Balkans by the United States and its allies. It is time Washington turned its attention to the problem." She writes: "Weak states with porous borders are fertile ground for organized crime and terrorists. This means America must act. Consistent support for a democratic reform process in the Balkans is the only way to resolve outstanding issues."


An editorial in "Le Monde" says some reformists in Iran are accusing the conservative mullahs of carrying out a coup d'etat. On 11 January, the Guardians Council announced that it would bar 80 reformist members of parliament -- almost one-third of the legislature -- from running for re-election next month. In some regions, all reformist candidates were excluded from the ballot. "Le Monde" says the reasons cited for the rejection of their candidacies were their "rejection of Islam" and non-allegiance to the principle of the superiority of the mullahs in political matters.

The bans provoked a strong reaction from reformist President Mohammed Khatami, who nevertheless called for calm, stating that although he disagreed with the ban, the reformists' reaction must be peaceful and in accordance with legal norms. Seventy reformist officials staged a sit-in at parliament and announced there would be more reaction in days to come. Khatami made clear that he would discuss the matter with the Guardians Council as well as with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

Governors of 27 out of 28 provinces in the country have threatened to resign before the week's end, and seven or eight ministers are also ready to step down. And a boycott of the parliamentary elections hangs in the balance. The February ballot is going to be a great test for the reform movement, says "Le Monde. "Numerous young Iranians have already announced their intentions not to vote in order to protest against the lack of social and economic reforms."