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Western Press Review: Blair Courts His Counterparts, Russian Elections, And The Mideast’s Negative View Of The U.S.

Prague, 11 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics being debated in the major news dailies today are British Prime Minister Tony Blair's attempts to mend fences with his French and German counterparts, the dubious alliance between Washington and Islamabad, upcoming (14 March) presidential elections in Russia, and America's negative image in the Arab and Muslim worlds.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Reginald Dale of the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) discusses British Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent attempts to mend the rift with Paris and Berlin that emerged in the run-up to war in Iraq.

Germany and France strongly opposed going to war without UN sanction, while Britain and the United States maintained that the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs justified military action.

Dale says the success or failure of Blair's fence-mending efforts will not just affect relations on the continent, but could also "have a determining influence on U.S. relations with the European Union for months and years ahead."

Britain today is increasingly important to U.S. interests, as "the European Union struggles to extend its international economic power to include foreign policy and defense and expands its membership deep into Eastern Europe." But it would be a mistake to assume that Blair is courting European capitals simply "to promote the decentralized, open-market [and] Atlanticist Europe" favored by Washington.

Dale says, "On the contrary, with an election likely next spring, he has strong domestic reasons for distancing himself from Washington" and countering accusations that he is America's lackey.

But the three EU powerhouses have differing views of Europe's future, including visions for vital economic reform. Dale says defense is the emerging focus of "deepening European cooperation, and defense happens to be Britain's strong suit."

Perhaps any reinvigorated three-way cooperation "will prove viable only in defense and foreign policy," which he says are "the very fields that most interest Washington." Yet Blair will neither "be lured into an anti-American Europe, nor will he succeed in creating a pro-American one." The British prime minister wants to be a fervent U.S. ally, as well as a true European diplomat. But Dale says the risk Blair runs in joining up with Paris and Berlin "is that he may end up as neither."


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Jay Solomon and Zahid Hussain say the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "has placed a huge bet" on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf in "relying on him to help hunt down Osama bin Laden and root out other Islamic terrorists."

This alliance, which rose from the ashes of the 11 September attacks, has "paid off in the short term, with hundreds of terrorists arrested." But the authors say these successes "have involved a delicate diplomatic trade-off."

The United States has since "been forced to accept an incomplete airing of the illegal sale of Pakistani nuclear technology to rogue states, possibly leaving the door open to more proliferation." Musharraf's critics "say he has become a more authoritarian leader at a time when the U.S. is trying to promote democracy abroad. And to retain his grip on power, he has formed alliances with fundamentalist Islamic parties, complicating his stated desire to crack down on militant Islamic schools that harbor Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters."

In essence, the U.S. view of Pakistan's president and top general is that, "Though he isn't perfect, he has been a firm and reliable ally." And Washington officials are wary of pressuring him too much on the nuclear proliferation issue "for fear of further undermining his political base." A Pakistan without Musharraf's leadership could give rise to even more frightening uncertainties.


Several of the major dailies today discuss upcoming presidential elections in Russia, which incumbent President Vladimir Putin is expected to win easily.


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Guy Chazan says that when Russian President Vladimir Putin faces re-election on 14 March, "his most serious adversary won't be any of the five rival candidates -- it will be voter apathy. With virtually no doubt he will triumph, getting enough voters to polling stations may be the biggest challenge facing Mr. Putin's campaign managers."

Under Russian election law, voter turnout must meet or exceed 50 percent or the ballot is rendered invalid.

Putin enjoys close to 70 percent support, according to recent opinion polls. But the former KGB officer has worried many observers both in Russia and abroad "by tightening control over the political system, squeezing out powerful opponents and bringing major television networks firmly under state tutelage."

Western election observers criticized the campaign ahead of parliamentary elections in December for biased media coverage and other irregularities. In the weeks leading up to the presidential ballot, Putin has refused to take part in televised debates, "but enjoys near-saturation coverage on state TV."

Chazan says, "With little public political competition, voter apathy could be the only limit on what has come to be known in Russia as 'managed democracy.' "


Columnist Mary Dejevsky predicts that when Russia's Vladimir Putin runs for re-election, "so overwhelming will be his majority that it hardly seems worthwhile anyone counting the votes."

Many critical observers fully expect Putin to use his second term to "strengthen his already iron grip on Russia, crush the lingering opposition, exile remaining oligarchs, annihilate the Chechens, harness the resurgent Russian nationalists and install himself as a latter-day tsar."

But to assume that Russia is simply reverting to a Soviet-style autocracy is too simple a characterization, and wrong on several counts. Dejevsky says Russia's negative factors cannot be ignored, but they are also ambiguous and part of a much larger picture. Instead of comparing today's Russia to Western Europe or the United States, it should be contrasted with Soviet times. This, she says, is how Russians themselves judge their situation.

There may be no independent television stations left, but state television includes frank discussion that would never have been allowed in the Soviet era. Freedom takes many forms, and includes "how willing people are to talk, how forthcoming they are, how healthy and happy they look as they go about their daily lives, how they behave towards each other, with more or less civility; the time they have for family life." And on "every single count, Russia is a better place for more people now than it was."


"Many accuse Washington of using doublespeak -- espousing freedom, democracy and human rights in its rhetoric, but supporting oppressive regimes in the Arab and Muslim worlds that do not respect these values."
In the period following World War II, the relative power of the United States was much the way it is today -- that is, supreme. But at that time, its influence was reinforced by another key element -- the United States was liked. Writing in France's leading daily, Alain Frachon says this is no longer the case. Today, America is widely resented.

This resentment is most acute in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where, for strategic purposes, the American image is now of utmost importance. The terrorist threat stems mainly from this region. In Indonesia, the Asian country with the largest percentage of Muslims, only 15 percent of those regularly polled in 2003 said they had a positive view of the United States. This figure was 61 percent in 2002, and is thought to have fallen sharply in the wake of the war in Iraq.

In Saudi Arabia, a Gallup poll estimates only 7 percent have a "very favorable" image of the United States. And in Turkey -- a secular state and a U.S. ally in NATO -- the Pew Center found only 15 percent held favorable opinions of the U.S. in 2003, down from 52 percent three years earlier.

Throughout the Arab-Muslim world, the dubious image of the United States is informed primarily by its untempered support for Israel in the conflict with Palestinians, Frachon says. Moreover, many accuse Washington of using doublespeak -- espousing freedom, democracy and human rights in its rhetoric, but supporting oppressive regimes in the Arab and Muslim worlds that do not respect these values.