An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" discusses the lingering differences between the Iraqi Shi'a community, which is pushing for quick elections, and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which favors waiting for Iraq to become more stable before elections are held. The paper says UN officials had good news for both sides last week when it agreed that Washington could hand back Iraqi sovereignty by 30 June but also reassured Iraqis that direct elections are possible, but not before the end of the year.
The paper says, "The burden on Iraqis now increases, and the UN needs to offer specific advice on how to ready the unstable country for self-rule."
The United Nations is taking an increasing role in Iraq following a U.S. request to that effect, and the newspaper says it should attempt to "propose specific solutions" when possible. The world body "could recommend expanding the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council to include more ethnic subgroups and letting it oversee the writing of a constitution and balloting for the interim legislature." The paper suggests that elections could be held first in the Kurdish north and the Shi'a-dominated south. And Washington "will have to reach an agreement with the post-30 June government on keeping troops in Iraq to provide security while a national army and police continue to be trained."
The Los Angeles daily says many of these "difficult steps will be easier if the U.S. yields as much political authority as possible to the United Nations before its self-imposed deadline. A government seen as speaking for Iraqis and supported by the UN would have legitimacy that one imposed by an occupier lacks."
The lead editorial in this British daily says Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision last week to sack his cabinet, including Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, came suddenly and without warning. But in the process, Putin may have "[injected] some welcome excitement into a campaign that has become embarrassingly one-sided" due to a lack of viable opposition candidates.
"The Guardian" goes on to discuss some of the criticisms often leveled against Putin for being overly autocratic in his policies. His critics "agonize about Mr. Putin as a man who wavers between market reform and political repression, between pragmatism and authoritarianism."
But these charges are misguided, says the paper. "Putin's mission has been to re-establish order after the wild chaos of the [former President Boris] Yeltsin years. It may not be what the West's doctors ordered, but if you had lost your savings twice in a decade, if your heavy industry had been decimated and your traditional markets lost, if the Americans were running around Georgia installing presidents as once you had done, a strong Kremlin leader becomes attractive."
The paper calls Putin "a provider to his loyalists and a nemesis to those who dare to oppose." The paper says while it may be difficult for Western minds to accept, the "political legacy" of Russia's difficult, post-Soviet free-market reforms is that "democracy is a devalued coinage now."
THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:
Writing in "The Christian Science Monitor," contributor Daan van der Schriek says some observers are worried that a much-needed campaign against corruption in Georgia led by President Mikheil Saakashvili has taken a somewhat sinister turn -- that a new "zeal for law and order has led to police abuses." A new police force will soon be set up within the Finance Ministry to combat economic crimes, and any official found to be taking bribes will be released from duty and prosecuted.
Five high-ranking officials have so far been arrested on charges including tax evasion, embezzlement, and misappropriating state property. Ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze's son-in-law is among those detained, leading to some accusations that at least some of the anticorruption campaign is politically motivated.
Van der Schriek says the drive's critics charge it is more a case of "political revenge" than a bona fide effort to clean up Georgia's notorious corruption. Others worry "that authorities are overstepping bounds as they try to stem corruption and other crimes." Human Rights Watch has accused the government in Tbilisi of using harsh methods that are popular with the public but which violate Georgia's obligations to protect human rights.
But ultimately, van der Schriek says, most observers agree that "it will take more than a few arrests to change a system built on cronyism and preferential treatment."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
Columnist Jackson Diehl discusses the difficulties faced by the political opposition in Ukraine. Pro-reform candidate Viktor Yushchenko is positioned to be what Diehl calls the "overwhelming favorite" in Ukraine's presidential election this year. Recent polls place him well ahead of incumbent Leonid Kuchma. But Yushchenko's campaign rallies are summarily disrupted, while criminal charges have been brought against several of his supporters and major financers. Several opposition newspapers that supported him have been shut down. Diehl quotes the embattled opposition leader as saying Ukraine "is one step away from state dictatorship."
Diehl says the path taken by Ukraine is likely to be followed by other former Soviet states, who "now live uneasily between the expanding European Union and Russia." The Kremlin would like to absorb them into "a new bloc dominated by Moscow," and what has "surprised and disappointed Yushchenko and his allies is the weak response from Brussels and Washington." Diehl says much of the West now suffers from "Ukraine fatigue," an illness he says is "bred by exasperation with Kuchma's government and doubts over whether the country really belongs inside the Western community."
Moreover, the U.S. administration's increased focus "on the 'greater Middle East' has tended to shift attention and resources from the borderlands of Eurasia. And some administration officials remain reluctant to pursue any policy that risks a fight with Putin."
But "Kuchma and his gang fear rejection by the West and the complete subjugation to Moscow it could lead to." If there is more reaction from the West to what is happening in Ukraine in the months ahead, Diehl says "democracy here might still be saved."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
Today's "International Herald Tribune" reprints an article by "The Boston Globe" correspondent David Filipov, who writes that every day in Chechnya, "Masked, heavily armed men in unidentifiable uniforms show up in armored vehicles and demand to see documents."
Sometimes they are looking for someone in particular, other times they have been known to "take away every fighting-age male in their path." Those detained "come back telling harrowing stories of beatings and torture." Many "never come back at all."
The pro-Moscow administration of Chechnya under President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov acknowledged the disappearance of 317 civilians last year, 48 of whom were later found dead. The remaining 269 are still missing.
But officials from the Russian-based Memorial human rights group say the numbers of those missing or killed may be much higher, and that 3,000 Chechens have disappeared since the second war in Chechnya was launched in 1999. Russian authorities deny any involvement and say Chechen separatists are responsible for the kidnappings.
Filipov says, however, that Chechens and international human rights groups "say security forces loyal to Kadyrov are responsible for many of the disappearances, holding detainees in a network of small, private jails, often pits in the ground."
He adds: "Investigating such allegations can be deadly." On 10 January, Aslan Davletukaev, an activist for the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was abducted by roughly 50 masked troops. His body was found six days later with a bullet in the back of the head.
An item in "Le Monde" by Henri de Bresson discusses Romania's EU bid in light of a recent warning from Brussels that Bucharest must speed up reforms before accession becomes a possibility.
A stroll through the Romanian capital finds dilapidated streets, yellowed vegetation, and old facades, signs of a city that once knew better times. Bresson says this state of affairs stands in great contrast to other Central European capitals which, since the end of communism in 1989, have overhauled and refurbished their city centers.
A falling population, high emigration, 6 million living in need, uncontrolled inflation, flourishing corruption, and paralysis in public office have all contributed to Romanian stagnation. But it is not all bad news, de Bresson says. French investors have found a healthy business climate and a skilled and hardworking labor force.
Theoretically, he says, Romania should be set to join the European Union in 2007 along with neighboring Bulgaria. But the European Parliament has just sounded the alarm, exhorting Romanian leaders to cure the dysfunctions of the state apparatus that it considers the main obstacle to integration. If progress on this front is not made, the 2007 objective will not be met.