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Western Press Review: Iran's Controversial Vote, EU Labor Migration, Chechnya

Prague, 24 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press commentary today finds continuing discussion of Iran's controversial elections last week, which gave conservatives a majority in parliament; labor migration within the EU following expansion on 1 May; the ongoing war in Chechnya; and Russian-EU relations after enlargement.


Writing in the "Eurasia View," Iranian-Afghan affairs analyst Camelia Entekhabi-Fard discusses the ongoing dispute over turnout in Iran's 20 February parliamentary elections. The latest results from the ballot indicate conservative candidates won at least 149 seats of the 290-member legislature.

Many observers saw a conservative victory as a foregone conclusion, following the hard-line Guardians Council decision to disqualify thousands of reformist candidates from standing in the election. Many reformists resigned in protest while others issued calls for an election boycott. But the controversy over the level of turnout is now "tainting what conservatives are seeking to portray as a convincing triumph," she says.

Iranian conservatives insist that over 60 percent of voters turned up at the polls. But the reformist-dominated Interior Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing the vote count, insists turnout was just over 50 percent. Entekhabi-Fard says if the Interior Ministry's figure is correct, it would mark "the lowest turnout total for a parliamentary election in the Islamic Republic's 25-year history."

Some reformists contend that even the Interior Ministry's figure is overstated, estimating turnout at below 50 percent. Entekhabi-Fard says, "Political observers say the 50-percent threshold is key: a minority turnout would seriously undermine the legitimacy of the next parliament, hampering its ability to promote any political agenda."

She says even if the Interior Ministry's figure is accepted, many believe the 50-percent mark was only achieved "through the use of coercive measures and outright ballot manipulation by conservatives," including multiple voting by members of the conservative armed forces. "Several reformist MPs additionally claimed that up to 25 percent of the ballots cast were blank."


A "Financial Times" editorial discusses labor migration within the European Union after 10 new countries become members on 1 May. The London-based daily says new regulations passed yesterday for those seeking employment in Britain from acceding Eastern European members "are a squalid concession to alarmist campaigns by the tabloid press."

The paper says there is "no evidence" job-seekers from the East "will swamp Britain with cheap [labor] -- or that hordes of 'benefit tourists' will descend to suck the welfare state dry." And yet the British government "has decided to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment by treating the 75 million people of the accession countries as second-class citizens."

Laborers from the union's eight new Eastern European members will be allowed to work in the UK once they register, unlike other EU nations that will require them to have actual work permits. But these and other such obstacles to employment "are likely to swell the unregulated world of illegal immigrant [labor], exposing job-seekers to exploitation." The "Financial Times" says although Britain's new rules are more liberal than those of other EU nations, they remain "a retreat from the government's previous open-door stance."

Social security rules in Britain are also expected to become more stringent, a policy the paper says has some merit. However, the new rules to end fraud "will be applied only to people from the accession eight," and will not apply to British citizens -- who "continue to account for the lion's share of the fraud." The paper says abuse of social security "[should] be stopped -- but stopped for everyone."


Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of a Soviet-era crime "perpetrated against the Chechen people -- and, of course, there was no official observance in Moscow." On 23 February 1944, Josef Stalin deported the Chechen population of 1 million in cattle cars, shipping them "to the wastes of Siberia and Central Asia." One-third of the population died on the journey; others died "under the hard conditions of exile."

A proposed ceremony to mark the event was banned and a small group who gathered in commemoration “[was] dispersed by the police." But writing in "The Washington Post," author and doctor Khassan Baiev says the past cannot be so easily forgotten "if there is to be a political settlement of the cruel Chechen conflict."

About one-quarter of the population has perished since 1994. "Fifty percent of the Chechen nation now lives outside Chechnya," he says. Meanwhile, by some estimations, 75 percent of the Chechen environment is now contaminated. Baiev calls Chechnya "a medical disaster area," noting that pediatricians report one-third of the children born in the area have birth defects.

As in all wars, "the main victims are civilians. In Chechnya, the human rights violations [are] horrendous. Chechnya has become a lucrative business operated by the Russian military and its Chechen criminal collaborators. Their trade is kidnapping young men, selling corpses back to relatives, looting property, stealing oil and selling guns."

Baiev says, "If world nations do nothing to support a peace settlement in Chechnya," young people will likely become "radicalized or forced into the arms of religious fanatics. Then Russia will have a far more serious problem [with] terrorism than it has today."


After having prostrated itself before Russian President Vladimir Putin, Europe once again tries to unbow its head, says Pierre Avril in France's "Le Figaro." EU foreign ministers meeting yesterday in Brussels reaffirmed their commitment to pursue an authentic strategic partnership with Russia, founded on shared obligations, mutual confidence, and open dialogue. But the ministers are now taking a "relatively firmer" stance with Russia.

The agreement on partnership and cooperation still governs relations between the European Union and Russia on subjects as varied as human rights, security, trade, and culture. Russia is now concerned that the 1 May enlargement will adversely affect bilateral relations with its former Soviet satellites, and has asked for a 1 June deadline for the provisional application of the agreement to the new members. The EU has expressed its willingness to discuss Moscow's "legitimate" concerns, but insists that the provisions of the partnership agreement be extended uniformly and "unconditionally" to all 25 EU states after enlargement.

This latest declaration should end the indecision that has characterized EU dealings with Russia over the past several months, Avril says. The Kremlin has skillfully played the divisions between EU institutions, attempting to secure compensations for all the damages it believes Russia will suffer stemming from enlargement. Moscow also seeks to advance other objectives, including greater status for Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics, free access to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, visa-free travel between Russia and Europe, and support on Chechnya.

Given that much of the EU economy depends on Russian energy sources, Avril says the EU will likely have to accommodate Russia on some of these points, even while it seeks to adopt a tougher tone.


"The majority of migrants are simply seeking a better job and future. And when they find those opportunities, their new homeland benefits, too."
A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial says when 10 new nations and 73 million Eastern and Mediterranean Europeans join the EU on 1 May, they are likely "to find doors slammed in their faces." The paper says, "Although the populations of the existing 15 member states enjoy the right of free movement of labor across Europe, 13 of those countries have decided to withhold this freedom from their new compatriots."

The U.S. experience with immigration "ought to encourage a more generous spirit," the "Journal" says. In the 1990s, the U.S. took in more than 13 million immigrants, who -- despite the predictable anti-immigrant warnings from some quarters -- helped stimulate the American economy's substantial growth, while unemployment decreased." When Spain and Portugal joined the European Union in the 1980s, restrictions on the free movement of labor "were lifted ahead of schedule after the predicted flood of immigrants failed to materialize."

The editorial says the "majority of migrants are simply seeking a better job and future." And "when they find those opportunities, their new homeland benefits, too."