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Western Press Review: Elections In Russia And Spain, The West's Nation-Building Breakdowns

Prague, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the media today continues concerning the outcome of Spanish and Russian elections last week. While Russian President Vladimir Putin easily won re-election, pundits continue to debate whether the ouster of Spain's ruling Popular Party was a direct reaction to the deadly bombings in Madrid last week, which killed more than 200 people. If so, would this represent a political victory for terrorism? The common failures of the West's nation-building efforts are also addressed in the press today, as are the chances for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.


An editorial in Britain's "Guardian" discusses 14 March elections in Russia, which saw President Vladimir Putin re-elected by a wide margin. International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was well organized and showed a high degree of professionalism. However, the OSCE mission chief also noted that the election process was not entirely in keeping with democratic principles.

Many have criticized Russian state television's disproportionate focus on the Putin campaign in the run-up to the vote, to the exclusion of other candidates. Putin received 71 percent of the vote; his nearest challenger was Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov with 14 percent.

These figures present a somewhat accurate portrait of the popularity of Russian politicians, "The Guardian" says. Russia's democrats "are not trusted." They "looked after their own interests" during the widespread post-Soviet privatizations of the 1990s, and few Russians today "believe that they are capable of defending the national one."

The paper says that for all the criticism of Putin's autocratic leadership style, as long as he "ensures that the salaries of teachers and doctors are paid and that Mother Russia is defended, as long as he seen to be providing the roof over their heads, few in Russia will bother too much how he does it."

But anyone who "challenges the authority of the Kremlin or its regional governors -- be they an independent trade unionist, a judge, a television anchorman, a parliamentarian or heaven forbid, a real political opponent" -- is bound to lose.

"The Guardian" says, "There is only one man in charge in Russia today -- the all-powerful Mr. Putin."


An editorial in "The New York Times" discusses whether Spanish voters "handed a victory to Al-Qaeda" when they ousted the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Several observers have charged that the Spanish poll, held in the wake of multiple bombings in Madrid that killed 201 people, will embolden terrorists to believe they can alter the outcome of elections with well-timed attacks.

The outgoing prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, was a staunch U.S. ally in the war in Iraq -- despite widespread antiwar sentiment in Spain -- and it has been suggested the bombs were meant as retribution for Aznar's support of the war.

Spain and other European governments may now "have a new motive" to distance themselves from the United States and its policies, the paper says. But it is "patently unfair to accuse Spanish voters of appeasing terrorists. They were voting against Jose Maria Aznar because he dragged Spain into a war opposed by 90 percent of the population, and because he tried to withhold the truth about the terror attack to bolster his political chances."

Nevertheless, the change of power in Madrid has altered the balance of power in Europe. A "key pro-Washington government" may now look more toward France and Germany, which tend to be wary of U.S. motives and methods. The paper calls on both Europe and the United States not to "become mired in recriminations and politics, but to urgently focus their efforts on jointly fashioning a coordinated and concentrated plan of action against terrorism."


Writing in this Washington, D.C.-based daily, columnist Cal Thomas takes another view of the Spanish vote. He says the dramatic rejection of the ruling Popular Party "represents a setback in the war on terror."

Those responsible for the bombing deaths of 201 people on Madrid commuter trains last week (11 March) "made a calculated gamble that horrific act would change the election's outcome and put in office a new prime minister who opposes Spain's participation in the stabilization of Iraq."

But Thomas says if the victorious Socialist Party follows through on its promises of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq, "Spain will make itself and the rest of the West less safe.... The possibility terrorists will try to repeat their political success in Spain during America's election season will be greatly enhanced if Spain cuts and runs."

Thomas writes, "This is a war against not only American and Spanish values, but against all values based on personal freedom, religious pluralism and individual conscience." He says the free world "must cooperatively and immediately take an aggressive, unforgiving and effective stance that will neutralize terrorists wherever they are hiding and working to destroy us, our economy, our freedoms and our way of life. There will be no time for appeals to the United Nations or negotiations with sick people who think they are going to heaven and want to send us to hell."


A shared contribution by Minxin Pei, Samia Amin, and Seth Garz, all researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses past U.S. attempts at nation-building in developing countries.

History has shown that the most dangerous period for fledgling democracies is between four to six years after the end of U.S. military intervention. "U.S.-sponsored political institutions begin to unravel when the United States, distracted or discouraged, allows political elites in the target countries to change the rules of the game to gain electoral dominance."

The researchers say, "Most of the countries where the U.S. has intervened militarily either failed to democratize or became more authoritarian within the decade of the end of the American intervention." Out of 14 such efforts, democracies were established in only three -- Japan and West Germany after World War II, and Panama after 1989.

Democracy failed to take root in either Cuba, Panama after 1936, or the Dominican Republic. The post-intervention regimes actually became more autocratic in Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, South Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Washington must strictly enforce "fair electoral rules over the medium term," say the authors. "In consolidating democracy, the most crucial test is [when] power is transferred, via elections, from the incumbent to the opposition" for the first time.

In some cases, the commitment to "the basic rules of democracy [needs] to supersede American desire for retaining friendly governments. The benefits of sustaining democratization over the long term outweigh the risks of having democratically elected, albeit unfriendly, governments in power."


Columnist John Hughes discusses nation-building in the Middle East, saying democracy "cannot be imposed like a Coca-Cola marketing plan. It must have grass-roots support, and by suasion and diplomacy come to be accepted by testy, proud, protective Arab societies that have a culture that is often very different from those of the West."

Hughes cites a professor of sociology at Utah's Brigham Young University, Abdullahi Gallab, as saying reform must come from popular initiative, and not be imposed. Gallab recommends roundtable talks with regional religious and political leaders.

Hughes says Gallab also points out that the Islamic ideas of consultation (shura), consensus (ijima), and independent interpretive judgment (ijtihad) are entirely conducive to democracy.


Clifford Kupchan of the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., discusses the possibilities for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement based on security guarantees and an easing of economic sanctions. That would be in exchange for a verifiable end to Iran's nuclear ambitions and its support for terrorist groups.

Kupchan writes: "After 25 years of mutual suspicion, the path to such an accommodation will be lengthy and demand distasteful concessions on both sides. But now is the time to lay out a road map specifying the actions each side must take."

First, he says, Iran "must abandon all nuclear weapons ambitions." Should there be no progress by the International Atomic Energy Agency's meeting in June, "the matter should be referred to the United Nations Security Council -- with the prospect of sanctions against Iran and a mandate for more intrusive inspections." Tehran must also cease its support for groups such as Hizballah and Hamas.

The United States, "for its part, should offer to guarantee Iran's security by renouncing at the top level any intention to force regime change. Tehran, to an extent not understood in Washington, urgently seeks guarantees and international respect."

Washington "should acknowledge that the Islamic republic is a regional power with legitimate security interests and that it deserves a voice in regional security matters." Moreover, the U.S. "should increasingly engage Iran in discussions about a future security structure for the Gulf."


Columnist Charles Lambroschini says terrorism has turned into a global conflict, with Europe now its battlefield. After the (11 March) massacre aboard four commuter trains in Madrid, European Union democracies cannot continue to content themselves with a security focus based on police forces and justice. Faced with religious fanatics, he says, they "must make war."

In more serene times, the priority was to build a common agricultural policy or a single currency. Today, it is organizing a common defense against an Islamic extremism that refuses to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. Lambroschini says access to intelligence will be key, and suggests increasingly integrating national EU intelligence services.

As a second line of defense, he says, European forces should consider striking at the "sources of subversion." The best defense, he says, is a good offense.

Lambroschini says French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are well aware that their opposition to the Iraq war does not offer them immunity from attack. Spanish commuters may have been "punished" last week for Madrid's support for war, but Ankara was similarly targeted -- even after denying U.S. troops the use of Turkish soil for the invasion of Iraq.

Lambroschini says Europe has already been too long in awakening to the dangers posed by terrorism.