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Western Press Review: Vying For Influence In Eurasia, America's Democratic 'Fantasies'

Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press coverage today finds discussion of hegemonic competition in Eurasia, conflicts and compromise in Iraq, the misperceptions guiding U.S. plans to democratize the Middle East, the Chechen youth's experience of war, and NATO's foundering mission in Afghanistan.


A "Washington Times" editorial today says, "The Russian bear is growling as Americans and Europeans bolster their commercial and strategic role in the Baltics, Caucasus and Central Asia."

The Kremlin likely wants to strike a deal on two of the foremost issues, namely what impending Baltic membership in NATO will mean for Moscow's security posture and reaching an agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova. Russia and Georgia "have two very different ideas about what the timeframe for dismantling Russian bases should be," the paper observes. If Moscow and Tbilisi are unable to reach agreement, the U.S. and Europe should pressure Russia to come to a deal.

Still, the paper says, the U.S. administration "should continue to refrain from vilifying Russia for pursuing its interests."

Although Eurasian countries "often complain about Russian dominance, many receive discounted natural gas and the rights to live and work in Russia." Competition between Russia, the United States, and the European Union for strategic or economic influence will actually benefit the nations of the region, who are able to decide for themselves what is to be gained by allowing the dominant powers to pursue military or commercial interests.

"There is ample potential for quid pro quo," says "The Washington Times." The United States and the European Union can encourage the protection of "the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics and other regions, help keep Islamic fundamentalism in check in Central Asia, allow Russia to gain the higher export quotas to an enlarged European Union and make it easier for the people of Kaliningrad to reach Russia."

The paper says keeping the Russian bear in check is often more a matter of old-fashioned bartering than a chance for confrontation.


Writing in "The Washington Post," columnist David Ignatius says the past week has seen two "potent messages" delivered in Iraq. First came the message that real compromise between Iraq's ethnic and religious groups was possible. The 1 March agreement on an interim Iraqi constitution happened because each main faction -- Iraq's Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurds -- realized that nobody could get everything they wanted. So the Shi'as "gave up their demand that Islamic law be the sole basis for legislation in Iraq; the Sunnis agreed that elections should take place by the end of this [year]; [and] the Kurds agreed to moderate their demands for autonomy in northern Iraq and to limit the territory of the Kurdish zone."

But the next day brought another message -- "sickening evidence of how desperately the enemies of this new Iraq want to destroy any U.S.-brokered conciliation." Nearly simultaneous bombings at Shi'a holy celebrations in Baghdad and Karbala killed some 180 people and wounded hundreds more. This was a message of sectarian violence, and possibly a sign that some in Iraq would like to see the country descend into inter-religious war between rival militias.

But "[the] center seems to be holding in Baghdad, where Shiite and Sunni leaders issued calls for calm and reconciliation." However, in Al-Najaf, Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani "[blamed] the U.S. occupiers for allowing the terrorists to operate." Shi'a militiamen were then deployed in areas of Baghdad. Ignatius warns, "If Iraq's various ethnic groups all turn to their own militias for protection, the slide toward civil war will accelerate."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," sociologist and author Amitai Etzioni says the U.S. administration's plans for democratizing the "greater Middle East" rest on some faulty assumptions.

He says, "[Study] upon study has shown how false is the promise to democratize countries with little preparation for democracy, especially if it is done on the run." Research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that "of the 18 regime changes to which U.S. ground troops were committed, only five resulted in sustained democratic rule." The successes include Germany, Japan, and Italy, in which democracy-friendly conditions existed "that are lacking in large parts of the world." The other two listed as democratic successes are Panama and Grenada, countries that he says "have yet to earn this title."

A "long list of failures, [including] Bosnia, Cambodia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Kosovo, Somalia and South Vietnam," has preceded U.S. attempts to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq. Democracy "is a delicate plant that thrives only if the soil is carefully cultivated," Etzioni says. For it to really take root, "there must be a fair level of law and order, economic development and education; a sizable middle class; respect for the rule of law; independent judges; and a rich fabric of voluntary associations."

Once these sectors are established, a fledgling democratic regime "requires political leaders and parties [to be] able to compete openly; open and fair elections; separation of powers; a low level of corruption; protection of minority rights; and freedom of association, expression and the press."

Etzioni says, "History has shown that less will not do."


David Filipov of "The Boston Globe" says the "decade of conflict and destruction that has claimed tens of thousands of lives" in Chechnya has also "robbed a generation of young Chechens of anything resembling a normal childhood."

For some of Grozny's young people, all they have known is "fear, flight and deprivation, the bitter fruit of an upbringing wrecked by two brutal conflicts" between Russian troops and Chechnya's separatists. Filipov says according to Chechen health officials, the "terror of war, the loss of loved ones, and the hardship of living in a conflict zone have scarred many of Chechnya's estimated 500,000 adolescents and children."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, slated to win re-election in a 14 March ballot, insists that life in Chechnya is returning to normal. "Yet Chechen children continue to die," says Filipov. "Unexploded ordnance and an estimated 500,000 land mines strewn across the republic kill and maim hundreds of young people each year," say Chechen Health Ministry statistics.

But "often the wounds are invisible," Filipov writes. "More than 80 percent of Chechen children have neurological and psychological problems brought on by the conflict," according to a survey of 320,000 children performed by the Health Ministry.

And as the conflict drags on, Chechnya's parents "struggle to explain the war" to their children, many of whom do not remember a time of peace.


As NATO gears up to meet next week for discussions on increasing military aid to Afghanistan, the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal" says the allies should be prepared to be generous this time around.

"NATO members are happy enough to proclaim big plans to strengthen and expand the alliance's peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. But their continued stinginess with resources makes a mockery of those promises."

Afghanistan's needs are not that great, the paper says. Troop contingents of between several dozen to 300 are needed to patrol throughout Afghanistan, and NATO needs "helicopters and cargo planes, communications equipment and other hardware to get the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams up and running." But so far, the paper says, member countries "aren't coming through."

Part of the problem is that "NATO's more generous members" -- namely the United States, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland -- already have many of their troops "tied up in Iraq." Thus, it is the "weaker or more reluctant" NATO partners that must shoulder the burden in Afghanistan.

There is a certain amount of urgency in this mission, the editorial says. National elections are scheduled for June, and Afghanistan's voters "will need protection from local warlords and gangsters." The "Journal" says if NATO members can't make the alliance's "first-ever mission outside Europe a success, then the skeptics who are saying that NATO is obsolete will have been proven right."


Columnist Jacques Amalric says Russian President Vladimir Putin simply could not wait for 14 March elections, so he decided to announce their results ahead of time -- his own re-election in the first round. Surely this explains Putin's decision to install a relative political unknown to the post of prime minister just weeks ahead of the elections, Amalric says.

Russian voters are somewhat indifferent to the upcoming poll because its outcome is assured. The constitution requires a 50 percent turnout to validate the ballot, and Putin supporters are feigning concern that this threshold will not be met. But after all, says Amalric, the Russian foundation that will monitor the election is headed by one of Putin's ex-colleagues, likewise a former KGB man (Andrei Przhezdomski).

Amalric goes on to discuss the career of incoming Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Fradkov is a career diplomat specializing in international trade and a real product of Soviet times who was already 40 when the regime collapsed in 1991. Amalric notes that Fradkov is also a former KGB member, and surmises that he will only be authorized to obey Putin's demands.

Fradkov's appointment is just the latest in a series of moves that have left Putin's former KGB colleagues in control of nearly 60 percent of the presidential administration, Amalric says. The "siloviki," as they are known, are ultranationalists, readily anti-Western, in favor of close control over economic life and often nostalgic for the Soviet era. And he says members of this nebulous club have accumulated many key successes since the political rise of their former colleague Putin.