Prague, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of media analysis and commentary today finds discussion of a crucial political year for Ukraine, reconstructing Afghanistan, and how Russian President Vladimir Putin's fortunes are inextricably linked with the war in Chechnya. We also take a look at the plight of democratic reformers in Iran and the independent probe that is to review possible U.S. intelligence failures concerning Iraq's weapons programs in the run-up to war.
THE MOSCOW TIMES:
In a contribution to "The Moscow Times," deputy editor Aleksandr Golts of "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" says Russian President Vladimir Putin's political fortunes "rose from the blood and muck of the Chechen war, and they have left their mark on his entire presidency."
In 1999, as former President Boris Yeltsin was looking to step down, there was no suitable successor, says Golts. "But then Chechen separatists staged a raid into neighboring Daghestan," and Putin directed the raid that drove them out. When two apartment building blasts in Moscow later that year were also blamed on Chechen separatists, Putin launched a new campaign in Chechnya to root out the rebels.
Golts says, "Suddenly Putin was the No. 1 politician in the country."
Today, almost five years later, "Endless war in the North Caucasus has proven to be Putin's all-purpose campaign strategy," says Golts. Launching "small victorious wars" to boost a politician's standing "is nothing new," he says. But few could have foreseen that the "heavy losses suffered by Russian troops in Chechnya and the generals' failure to establish control over the breakaway republic [would do] nothing to dent Putin's popularity."
It is now clear "that Russian voters are prepared to endure endless lies from their leaders about the latest 'phase' of the 'operation' in Chechnya, as well as a staggering number of Russian dead."
Golts says he doubts that any politician in Russia today would dare remind Putin of his promises in 2000 to crush the Chechen resistance "once and for all, to restore law and order [and] to ensure the safety of the Russian people."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" says U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to agree to an independent investigation into the intelligence failures ahead of the war in Iraq "looks more like an effort to deflect attention until after the election than a genuine attempt to get to the bottom of the Iraq fiasco. Though dignified and bipartisan, the members lack the technical expertise to really unravel what was wrong with American intelligence and suggest how to fix it."
Moreover, the commission's mandate is limited to "a review of intelligence gathering and analysis." The investigation will look into "why the prewar estimates of Iraq's weapons stockpiles differ from what has been found," but will not answer what paper calls "the big political question" -- "Did the administration hype intelligence to increase support for the war?"
The editorial says Bush "did not ask the panel for an unfettered look at how his administration had presented the intelligence in making the case for war. By dodging that, the president leaves voters to find their own answers" ahead of elections this November.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
"A reversal of the slide toward authoritarianism in the former Soviet Union must be atop the West's agenda for the region," says an editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe." And it is Ukraine that seems most likely to follow in Georgia's footsteps toward establishing a popular democracy.
Ukraine possesses two important ingredients that other countries in the region lack: a "genuinely popular opposition leader and a generally pro-Western, pro-reform electorate." Former Prime Minister turned opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko "would probably win any direct, free election," says the editorial.
But President Leonid Kuchma does not need "to be run out from office like Mr. [Eduard] Shevardnadze or Slobodan Milosevic," the paper says. Instead, "the Ukrainian opposition and the [United States] and the EU must give him the proper incentives to hold free elections and stop tinkering with the rules." If the opposition unites to show "it can call the people into the streets, Mr. Yushchenko might then be in a position to strike deals with Mr. Kuchma."
The EU should "[tie] a realistic prospect of membership more clearly to domestic reform." After all, says the paper, "Ukraine will soon be the EU's eastern neighbor."
Washington has even more leverage. It has already given $2 billion to support reform in Ukraine. But perhaps the United States "might profitably devote more of those resources toward supporting democratic opponents" who better understand what constitutes a "free" country. The paper says, "The autocrats of Belarus, the Caucasus and Central Asia will be watching closely."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
Also writing in the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," Afghan affairs analyst Barnett Rubin of New York University's Center on International Cooperation says Afghanistan will need $28 billion over the next seven years before it is able "to establish a stable government or implement the constitution." But Afghans "cannot build a constitutional order on a criminalized base," says Rubin.
According to the International Monetary Fund, at least 40 percent of the Afghan economy is illicit, involved in the drug trade, trafficking in emeralds and timber, artifact smuggling, land grabs and the trafficking of women. This illicit economy "is the tax base for insecurity," Rubin says. "Those who profit from it command resources to resist the rule of law."
The people are demanding security, but "the government cannot raise taxes to pay or equip its police." On a recent visit to an opium-producing province, officials from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime watched as "[local] traffickers zipped around in [four-wheel-drive] vehicles, wielding satellite phones, with guards carrying automatic weapons. The police, meanwhile, plodded on foot or bicycle."
Rubin says, "Without an economy to provide legal income, eradicating the only livelihood further undermines efforts to establish rule of law." He says there is "no way to turn Afghanistan into a stable state where terror finds no refuge without a legal economy that will outgrow the illegal one -- fast."
An editorial in France's "Le Figaro" says today's Iran is a complex country, and yet politicians and the media from both France's right and left seem to have adopted a similar approach to the political situation there.
Their approach is an erroneous one that does not take into account the efforts and suffering of the Iranian people who are subjected to crimes against humanity by a regime that is allegedly reforming.
A documentary that aired last month on France 2, "Journey in the Country of the Mullahs," chronicled systematic torture -- a man having his fingers chopped off, a woman stoned to death, young people hanging from cranes in town squares. These recent images "contradict the declarations by [French Foreign Minister Dominique de] Villepin and his predecessors, who are all very eloquent [in discussing] the improvements of the regime, thanks to reforms."
The images showed "in 20 small minutes, the bitter failure of French diplomacy," of its "critical dialogue," its "constructive dialogue" with Iran. The images accuse the reformers of maintaining a complicit stupidity, while everyone realizes with dismay that Iran's pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami is only "a politically correct alibi justifying relations with Iran."
Regrettably, says the paper, these disturbing images were quickly counteracted by French journalists from both the left and the right, as well as by politicians who hastily reaffirmed their support for Iran's reformers. But the French establishment has too quickly forgotten that the Iranians who are suffering under this repression have known for a long time that they are being deceived by Khatami.