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Western Press Review: Supremacy In Central Asia, Armenia's Economic 'Distortions,' And The Kremlin Campaign Against Russia's Belles Lettres

Prague, 5 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press commentary today finds discussion of Sino-Russian supremacy in Central Asia, how Eastern Europe is resigning itself to impending EU membership, distortions in the Armenian economy, and the Kremlin's new campaign to suppress Russian authors.


A report by J.C.K. Daly in "Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst" discusses Sino-Russian dominance of the Central Asian region in light of their preeminent role within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Five of the SCO member countries -- Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are facing domestic sources of terrorism.

Russia's war against Chechen separatists continues, as does China's crackdown on its independence-minded Uighur Muslims. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan grapple with Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate across the region. Kazakhstan is the only SCO member that has remained relatively unaffected by the perceived terrorist threat.

These security concerns have spurred the SCO's smaller nations to draw closer to Moscow and Beijing. But they are also wary of how much Russia and China dominate the SCO and their own "surrender of significant elements of national sovereignty."

Daly writes that both Russia and China seek to curb the post-11 September encroachment of U.S. military power into the region by shoring up their own presence. Beijing views Central Asia "as both a critical source of future energy supplies and an area of potential security threats." But Daly says Central Asian states might soon regret the tradeoff for Moscow and Beijing's offers of security cooperation, given that the region's protectors seek to exploit its wealth of energy resources and minerals.

Daly says the United States will have to accept the reality of Sino-Russian regional dominance. But this presence can be mitigated by Washington's support for Central Asian debt reduction and fostering access to Western financial institutions. Daly warns that from Dushanbe to Astana, "the greatest threat is not transnational terrorism; it is indigenous terrorism feeding off economic stagnation."


Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," John Darnton says 1 May will mark the entry of much of Eastern Europe "into that bastion of free-market capitalism and Western democracy, the European Union."

But he says, "don't expect any huge outpouring of spontaneous joy" from the accession countries. The three largest new members -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- seem to be experiencing a sort of "passive acceptance and resignation, a shoulder-shrugging sense of anticlimax."

In all three countries, he says, many "seem to feel that joining the European Union makes sense the way a visit to the dentist makes sense -- once the pain is over, things are bound to improve." There are "numerous misgivings: prices may go up, the promise of jobs may not materialize, the major powers like Germany and France may bully their novice representatives, and the bureaucracy in Brussels may steamroll over venerable local institutions."

Having experienced only about a dozen years of post-Soviet independence, many Eastern European nations are wary of giving up their hard-earned sovereignty. The final terms reached with the EU were also "not as generous as those given to earlier members like Greece and Portugal," leading to "a sense of let-down." But Darnton says that on the bright side, most accession country citizens believe there will be increased opportunities for study abroad, a wider assortment of consumer goods, and that membership will "safeguard freedom and political stability." Despite the lingering doubts, most are committed to joining the EU, as clearly evidenced by the public referendums that approved membership in almost every country scheduled to join in May.
"Don't expect any huge outpouring of spontaneous joy from the accession countries."


In a contribution to the English-language "The Moscow Times" daily, Boris Kagarlitsky of the Institute of Globalization Studies wryly remarks that, four years after President Vladimir Putin was installed in the Kremlin, "the regime has once more taken an interest in belles lettres."

One night last month, a Moscow bookstore was scheduled to present "The Last Pioneers," a new collection of works by underground writers. But that evening, "armed policemen and FSB agents in bulletproof vests burst into the store and declared the proceedings closed." A few days later, the publishing house behind the book was notified its rental agreement "had been terminated unilaterally."

The FSB also recently confiscated more than 4,000 copies of a book by former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko and historian Yurii Felshtinskii "on the pretext of protecting 'state secrets.'" The book, entitled "The FSB Blows Up Moscow," asserts that federal security services were behind the 1999 apartment building blasts that spawned the launch of the second Chechen war and Putin's rise to the nation's top post.

And on 2 February, a bomb went off outside the apartment of Yelena Tregubova, a former Kremlin reporter who has just published a "tell-all" book called "Tales of a Kremlin Digger."

As Kagarlitsky says, "[the] suffering of writers at the hands of the powerful is a recurrent theme in the history of Russian literature. Pushkin and Lermontov were sent into exile; Tolstoy was excommunicated by the [Russian] Orthodox Church; Dostoyevsky was thrown into [prison]." And Putin's Kremlin is now "doing everything possible to restore the aura of persecution and authority to Russian literature."

But, he says, "Hardships temper the spirit. The police have done their bit -- now it's the writers' turn."


Also writing in "The Moscow Times," Yerevan-based journalist Kim Iskyan says the Armenian economy is "seriously distorted." In 1989, Azerbaijan closed its border with Armenia following their dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a show of support, Turkey similarly closed off all roads and railways with Armenia. Now, 10 years after the subsequent cease-fire, "the two sets of borders remain closed."

As a result, "goods and people flow from the rest of the world into and out of Armenia by air, or [via] Iran and Georgia [at] a significant premium to cover transportation and corruption costs." Consumers thus "pay inflated prices for imported goods, and exporters need to fight even harder to be competitive in the global marketplace." And Iskyan says joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), as Armenia did in 2003, did not help.

Nevertheless, "with 13.9 percent GDP growth last year -- thanks largely to plentiful donor funds -- Armenia is doing quite well," Iskyan says. But according to World Bank estimates, lifting the blockades "could lead to a 30-percent increase in Armenia's GDP."

But the embargo continues, and Iskyan remarks that "in the same way [a] small number of well-connected individuals may have an incentive to ensure that Russia's senseless war in Chechnya continues, there are those in Armenia who may benefit from their country's regional trade pariah status." And for the large Armenian diaspora, Turkey's continuing blockade "is a handy hammer for bashing its historical enemy on the world stage."


Several French dailies today discuss U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry's bid for the White House this November. Writing in "Liberation," Patrick Sabatier calls Senator Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) the "anti-Bush" and poses the question: "Can John Kerry drive George W. Bush out of the White House?"

Sabatier says in Paris, Kerry is already a putative U.S. president. Not only does he speak French and have relatives on this side of the Atlantic, but the patrician leftist-liberal is a committed internationalist and deeply critical of the management of the Iraqi crisis.

A defender of the environment and the right to abortion, he is against the death penalty -- except for terrorists. He is also in favor of ensuring the state guarantees a minimum of social protection and equity. Kerry is thus "the perfect anti-Bush," says Sabatier.

But in the eyes of Democratic voters, what is most important is the ability to counter Bush's claim that he is the candidate best qualified to ensure the safety of the United States. Kerry's war-hero status, his long experience in the Senate and his criticisms of Bush's budgetary mismanagement might be able to lure "independent" voters.

And yet his pedigreed origins and wealth are a handicap to your average U.S. voter, as is his conspicuous lack of charisma. A Boston native, Kerry can seem alien in the American West or South. It takes an extraordinary candidate or exceptional circumstances to beat an incumbent president, Sabatier says, even one as vulnerable as Bush.