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Western Press Review: Debating Iraq's Election Process, The U.S. Presidential Race, And EU-NATO Expansion

Prague, 19 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in the press today are a planned meeting between Iraqi leaders and coalition authorities today at the UN; the caucus in the U.S. state of Iowa, which will help determine who will become the Democratic nominee to challenge incumbent U.S. President George W. Bush; the uncertain future of Georgia's semi-autonomous Abkhazia region; and the eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO to Russia's "doorstep."


Members of the Iraqi Governing Council and the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, are scheduled to meet for talks today at the United Nations. One of the main aims of the meeting will be to resolve an impasse between the U.S. administration, which wants a transitional Iraqi government to be indirectly elected by an appointed assembly, and Iraq's Shi'a majority leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who insists on direct elections.

In a contribution to "The New York Times," Chibli Mallat of Beirut's University of Saint Joseph says the United States is now relying on greater UN involvement to grant the occupation some legitimacy and establish "a lasting democracy." But Mallat says, given the world body's "dismal record of silence" during three decades of Hussein's rule, he remains unconvinced that increased UN involvement will translate into successful nation-building.

A better solution "already lies within the nation's borders," writes Mallat. The "most representative [government] in the Middle East sits in Baghdad" in the form of the Iraqi Governing Council.

"With all its shortcomings and contradictions, the council covers the fullest possible spectrum of Iraqi society, from the Islamists to the Communists, and all the strands in between." He suggests this council, "as a national unity government, should be unconditionally recognized as in charge of Iraq's destiny, with the support of the United States-led coalition."

Mallet says it should be declared "the official interim government of Iraq -- making the United States plan to select a national assembly by July 1 unnecessary." The council would then be "empowered to draft a constitution and set the parameters for what a new government would look like and when and how it would be elected."


An editorial in the "Financial Times" says the United States is now ready to ask for help from the United Nations, a multilateral organization it formerly "sidelined as largely irrelevant."

Essentially, Washington is seeking UN support for its contention that direct democratic elections in Iraq "are not feasible before Washington's planned handover to a provisional government at the end of June." But Bremer and his colleagues at the Pentagon are ignoring the message coming from Ayatollah al-Sistani and other quarters of Iraq -- that the future of their country "must be decided by Iraqis who are elected by Iraqis."

Washington's plan is now to convince the UN to agree that direct elections are still not feasible. But this tactic "places the UN [in] a delicate, indeed compromising position." It is essentially being asked "to endorse a future Iraqi government of only nominal sovereignty and questionable legitimacy, by whose invitation the occupying powers would remain in place."

But the sometimes conflicting interests of Iraq's Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds "can only be addressed in a context of legitimacy." And if the U.S. wants UN help, it must also cede it a measure of authority. If direct elections are not an option, Washington must agree to "a more credible procedure mechanism," and place it under UN control.


"The Washington Post's" Jim Hoagland says Russia will once again become a problem for the West this year as the European Union, NATO, and the U.S. -- with its redeployment of bases and troops in Europe -- move east toward Russia's doorstep.

These three events are part of a new strategic environment that will "complete the ending of the Cold War division of Europe."

Another round of NATO expansion is set to occur in early spring; in May, the EU will expand from 15 to 25 members. "Europe's chief political body has already been the target of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's suspicions and ire in negotiations over access to Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and other subjects," Hoagland remarks. However, Putin has already secured the support of the British and U.S. leadership, as well as that of Italy, on many issues of interest to Moscow.

But Hoagland notes that farther east -- in the "former Warsaw Pact nations and ex-Soviet republics that join the European Union and NATO in parallel [expansions] -- distrust of Russia in general and of Mr. Putin in particular runs deep."

Many of the Kremlin's former satellites believe that "through design or incompetence, Russia is destabilizing [its] fragile neighbors and former republics immediately to the east and south. Failing governments or chaotic conditions in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova or Georgia could trigger Russian intervention or even occupation and reabsorption, the Central Europeans fear."

The "anger and suspicion" many nations feel toward their former Soviet masters "are too visceral" to dictate policy, Hoagland says. But at the same time, these fears cannot be ignored.


A report by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" discusses Central and Eastern Europe's contribution to operations in Iraq, as many Eastern nations are "keen to demonstrate their support for Washington."

Poland -- which has already sent 2,300 troops and leads a 9,200-strong multinational force in Iraq -- is due to become an "important counterweight" within the EU to Old Europe -- namely France, Germany, and Belgium.

The Czech Republic sent a dozen military police officers to guard the international team of weapons inspectors in Iraq; Lithuanian troops are based with a British contingent in Basrah; and 120 Latvian peacekeepers have been in Iraq since last summer. Bulgaria has 500 troops in Iraq who are now helping oversee the management of the holy Shi'a city of Karbala. Slovakia has contributed several military engineers.

"Jane's" says the three Baltic states will soon spearhead a pro-U.S. lobby faction that will emerge inside of the EU and NATO with the 2004 expansions. Other former Soviet states are also looking to gain favor with Washington as they look to the scheduled 2007 NATO summit. Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia will all be candidates at that point, but Ukraine's chances of joining the alliance will depend on the outcome of its presidential elections in October 2004. While Kyiv did send 1,700 troops to Iraq, "Jane's" says it appears no improvement in relations with Washington is likely while President Leonid Kuchma remains in office.


Writing in "Le Monde Diplomatique," Mathilde Damoisel and Regis Gente say Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia exists in an "uncertain peace, defending its de facto independence unrecognized by the international community."

Its 1992 to 1993 war with Georgia caused 10,000 deaths and the "scars of war can be seen everywhere," while Abkhazia's infrastructure remains "devastated." The state structure is weak, while "[pressure] from clans and former networks of influence from the USSR is strong." Russia has traditionally "used the Abkhaz question to control its near neighbors," the authors say. "By helping Abkhaz separatists, Moscow wanted leverage over Georgia, the key to the Caucasus."

The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and the international community continues to support Georgia's territorial integrity. In March of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and then President Eduard Shevardnadze signed a bilateral agreement promising cooperation on a number of issues, including the return of Georgian refugees and reopening a Sochi-Tbilisi railway line.

But the authors say the agreement essentially "confirmed the status quo." It also "put Moscow in command to the detriment of the UN and possibly of any comprehensive political settlement."


A "New York Times" editorial today discusses the de facto beginning of the Democratic presidential race today as Iowa holds its caucus. The paper says this is "no way to choose a potential president," as such caucuses are a process of "preferential apportionment that falls ludicrously short of the one-person, one-vote ideal."

Nevertheless, "it will have served its purpose if the nation gets teased into paying greater attention to politics and to the more direct primary elections that begin next week in New Hampshire."

An editorial in the London-based "Times" says U.S. President George W. Bush "enters this electoral year as a formidable figure." The economy seems to be in recovery and Bush has not neglected domestic issues, despite the attention he has focused on Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Iraq "remains an uncertain political question. [With] the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq now in excess of 500, and a car bomb attack outside the main U.S. compound in Baghdad yesterday, the White House cannot yet claim to have fully restored order."

But while the contenders for the Democratic nomination "fight on colorfully among themselves in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Bush should appeal to the center. Moderate voters, while relieved at the pace of economic recovery, will want to be confident that a re-elected Bush administration will not allow the federal budget deficit to career out of control. Others [will] want to see a second term diplomatic strategy for the Middle East take shape."

"The Times" says Bush has often stuck the right balance between "compassionate" and "conservative," and advises him to "avoid being embroiled needlessly in social controversies."