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Western Press Review: Debating Iraq's Elections, U.S. Policy In Azerbaijan, And Georgia's New President

Prague, 26 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several analyses in the media today consider the time table for a transfer of power in Iraq, as the debate over how to best conduct elections in the country continues. Also discussed is U.S. policy in Azerbaijan; the Afghan Supreme Court's constitutional loophole; and the inauguration yesterday of Georgia's new president, Mikheil Saakashvili.


A "Washington Post" editorial criticizes the U.S. administration's policy toward Azerbaijan and warns that it could ultimately be counterproductive. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father in the country's top post last October in a much-contested election.

Ensuing protests sparked a widespread crackdown in which demonstrators were beaten and more than 1,000 people arrested, including activists, journalists and opposition leaders.

Meanwhile, says the daily, Aliyev has been "consolidating dictatorial power," including being named director of Azerbaijan's radio and television networks.

In light of all this, the paper says Azerbaijan would be a good place for U.S. President George W. Bush "to start implementing his frequently declared policy of 'spreading freedom' to the world." Instead, the American president and his aides "have embraced Mr. Aliyev, excused his fraud and ignored his human rights violations -- not to mention reliable reports of his personal corruption."

Azerbaijan has become a strategic ally in the war on terrorism and has already received $3 million in U.S. military aid. But the paper says "a more obvious source of President Bush's policy is oil." Aliyev and his father have been friendly with U.S. oil companies to the tune of several billion dollars.

Washington may deem it "expedient" to give Aliyev support, "just as for decades U.S. governments found their interest in propping up dictators in the Persian Gulf," says the "Washington Post." But it may "take the United States decades to overcome the legacy of embracing corrupt dictators in the Arab world. The least Mr. Bush can do is avoid repeating the mistake in the new oil states of the Caucuses and Central Asia -- beginning in Azerbaijan."


Writing in "The New York Times," Alexander Thier of the Asia Foundation says that in only 10 days, Afghanistan's Supreme Court managed "to violate the word and spirit" of the country's new constitution. On 14 January, the court ruled that the television broadcast of a performance by the Afghan pop singer Salma was un-Islamic and illegal.

Thier says the court's ruling "underscores one of the greatest threats to stability and democracy in Afghanistan: a renegade judiciary bent on imposing its fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran rather than enforcing Afghan law." He says Afghanistan's new constitution guarantees "many rights and freedoms for men and women. But it has a very dangerous loophole: it states that no law can be contrary to the 'beliefs and provisions' of Islam." This phrasing could allow for extremists to impose Shari'a law, a strict Islamic code. Essentially, he says, the Supreme Court has "the power to reject virtually any law or treaty as un-Islamic."

"This power, in the wrong hands, could be catastrophic," Thier says, and could lead to a system such as in Iran, where the unelected Guardians Council controls the legislative and executive branches, as well as oversees the electoral system.

Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai must take "decisive action," says Thier. First, the Afghan leader should make it clear that the Supreme Court can only decide on legal cases that have been officially argued before it. Secondly, he recommends the current court be disbanded and new members appointed.


An editorial in the "Boston Globe" says of the ongoing wrangling over how best to conduct elections in Iraq, "the more democratic argument is on the side of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani." Sistani wants direct elections to be held in Iraq, while the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CAP) advocates choosing delegates that would then select a temporary government to replace the current Iraqi Governing Council.

The CAP argues that there is not enough time before the scheduled 1 July transfer of power to allow for the conducting of a census, a voter roster, and to create all the necessary institutions to manage a direct vote. On the other hand, the CAP plan could be accomplished quickly and easily, the paper says.

But Shi'a leader Ayatollah al-Sistani maintains that the Americans "should not have a hand in choosing representatives for Iraqis, that after 35 years under Saddam's police state every Iraqi deserves a chance to exercise his or her democratic right to vote, and that if the new Iraqi government is to be legitimate, it must originate in a legitimate direct election."

The "Globe" says "a great deal is at stake" in this debate. But it would be best for both Iraq and the United States if the transfer of power takes place in a manner agreed to by al-Sistani. Washington "should want the legitimacy that comes with even hurried or imperfect elections and with Sistani's recommendation."


"Financial Times" UN correspondent Mark Turner says as the United Nations now considers renewed involvement in the transfer of power in Iraq, the most pressing concern is not so much the process chosen for holding elections, but their outcome. What he calls "extremists, armed bullies, a tyrannical majority defined by ethnicity or religion, and crooks" are still active in Iraq -- and what if one or more such groups wins elections?

Turner says, "Such groups have demonstrated time and time again that they benefit most from a premature rush to the ballot box and from the sham legitimacy that confers." Moreover, can the world be sure that the losers of any election will accept the outcome? The legitimacy of elections anywhere rests on the idea that all participants have faith in the process and will willingly accept its results. But is this true today in Iraq?

Clear rules for elections "take time to establish," Turner says. "They require freedom to move, assemble and talk. In cases where elections are premature and arranged hastily and badly, the expectations raised can become a dangerous force." He says Iraq's different groups "will clearly have very different ideas. But whatever the UN might say -- assuming it proceeds with a study mission to Iraq -- would be informed by a decade of efforts, however imperfect, to design impartial democratic systems, from the Balkans to Cambodia."


Regional analyst Ariel Cohen discusses the ways in which the ascension of Mikheil Saakashvili to the Georgian presidency complicates relations between Moscow and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attended Saakashvili's swearing-in ceremony yesterday and then headed to Moscow for talks with Russian leaders. Writing in "Eurasia View," Cohen says Powell is entering "delicate geopolitical territory," amid Russian concerns that Washington will use its burgeoning alliance with the Westward-leaning Saakashvili as a tool to increase the U.S. presence in the region.
Cohen notes that Saakashvili has made promises "to tackle Georgia's internal corruption and its endemic poverty. He has tried to placate Russia in speeches but has been firm about his insistence on keeping breakaway provinces from seceding to Russia." He says Saakashvili "represents something new in post-Soviet politics: the leader of a massive, well-organized effort to peacefully render a sitting president illegitimate."

The U.S. administration "cannot afford to let Russia undermine Saakashvili's story," says Cohen. "A confident Georgia can deliver many benefits. It could stabilize the South Caucasus, shielding American access to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and other valves on the Caspian Sea. It could weaken separatist rhetoric in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which might discourage Russian intervention. And it could become a more effective partner in tracking, stopping and punishing terrorists."


Alex Rodriguez of the "Chicago Tribune" says Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili now faces "the Herculean task of wresting the former Soviet republic from the deeply rooted poverty and corruption that led to his predecessor's ouster."

Georgia's former leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, was peacefully overthrown in November following a much-contested parliamentary election. The new president "also inherits Georgia's longstanding struggle over two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the semi-autonomous province of Ajaria. Though all three provinces have the backing of the Kremlin, Saakashvili has boldly assured Georgians he will keep Ajaria under Georgia's oversight and eventually return the two other provinces to the Georgian fold."

Knowing how much Saakashvili has to accomplish, Rodriguez says Georgian citizens "are willing to give Saakashvili time to get the job done, but they are eager to see signs he is on the right track." His biggest challenge will be "reviving an economy in shambles." And whether he is successful "will depend partly on how much aid he gets from the U.S. and Europe."