Prague, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics being discussed in today's press are Russia's role as the "sick man" of Europe, the U.S. closure of a popular newspaper in Iraq, the autocratic tendencies of the new Georgian leadership, and the continued violence in Uzbekistan.
THE MOSCOW TIMES
An editorial in the English-language "The Moscow Times" expresses concern that Georgia's new leadership is showing some autocratic tendencies.
President Mikheil Saakashvili overthrew his predecessor in a bloodless popular coup in November following parliamentary elections that were widely viewed as fraudulent.
But the paper notes that Saakashvili was subsequently elected president in January "with a Soviet-sized majority," while his party "just enjoyed a landslide victory in [28 March] parliamentary elections and he now dominates the legislative process. He recently amended the Constitution to beef up the presidency, and there are few -- if any -- checks on his executive power."
Human rights organizations are warning of authoritarian trends and Georgia's opposition is accusing the new president of "revolutionary terror."
But few question Saakashvili's genuine popularity. He has been given a clear popular mandate "for radical change to raise people's living standards." Nor should there be any doubt about the magnitude of the task facing the new government. As "The Moscow Times" puts it, "[a] functioning state needs to be built virtually from scratch."
And yet, "clearly there is a fine line between forcing the pace of change and autocratic rule. [If] Georgia's latest attempt at democracy is to be successful, then personalities must be made subordinate to democratic institutions. And some kind of viable opposition is essential for the health of any democracy."
The paper says Western powers "can play an important role by making sure that an authoritarian and personality-driven approach to politics is given short shrift." However, their record in similar circumstances "is not exactly encouraging."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial in "The New York Times" says the U.S. coalition in Iraq undermined its goals of bringing stability and democracy to Iraq when it decided to close down an Iraqi newspaper, "Al Hawzah."
The paper says: "In a scene distressingly evocative of neighboring Middle Eastern autocracies, [chief U.S. administrator L. Paul] Bremer sent U.S. soldiers to shut down and padlock a popular Baghdad newspaper [on 28 March]. The stated reason was that by printing false anti-American rumors, the Shi'a weekly [stirred] up hatred, undermined stability and indirectly incited violence."
Charges made by the paper -- including the erroneous allegation that U.S. interests have been responsible for some of the attacks on the fledgling Iraqi police force -- have helped "poison Iraqi opinion" against the U.S. presence and made "[a] difficult and dangerous job even more so." But such reports "do not create the hostility Americans face in Iraq -- they reflect it. Shutting them down [is] not a promising way to dissolve that hostility."
The paper observes, "It is hard to believe that the thousands of outraged Baghdadis who watched U.S. forces chain and lock the doors of the newspaper offices will now refuse to believe hateful rumors circulated by preachers, leaflets and word of mouth. Nor is this demonstration of military censorship likely to help convince skeptical Iraqis that the main reason for America's continued occupation of their country is to help transform it into a regional showcase of American-style freedoms."
Columnist Veronique Soule says Uzbekistan is caught between a dictatorship and Islamist opposition movements. The regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov is one of the most brutal in all of Central Asia, she says. And as a faithful U.S. ally in the "war on terrorism," Karimov has been able to crack down on Islamic groups and others that oppose his rule. Western powers have conditioned their increased aid on Tashkent making improvements to its human right record. But Soule says in deference to such an invaluable regional ally, the U.S. has not pushed hard for reforms. And she says Karimov's repressive policies merely serve to nourish the ranks of the region's already entrenched terrorists.
Uzbekistan is a major producer of cotton and gold, and self-sufficient in terms of energy resources due to its large reserves of oil and gas. However, it is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union, with an average monthly wage of $40. It is this economic misery, in combination with widespread corruption in the leadership circles, that Soule says is an ideal breeding ground for fundamentalists.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) seeks to establish a caliphate in the region through armed struggle against established regimes. Another group, Hizb-ut Tahir, advocates using peaceful methods to achieve the same objective. But in spite of the many Islamic groups active in the region, Soule says one cannot be certain that yesterday's bomb blasts in Tashkent were the work of the Islamists. Several Uzbek groups are currently seeking to position themselves advantageously as the Karimov regime undergoes a "crisis of succession."
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Hoover Institution fellow and columnist Arnold Beichman says Russia today is the "sick man of Europe," using a phrase Tsar Nicholas I used to describe the Ottoman Empire of the mid-19th century. Russia faces "a demographic crisis," he says. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Russia will experience a drop in population of 10 million by 2025. The UN predicts a 21 million drop in the same timeframe. Moreover, even in the rest of Europe, "where depopulation is a matter of concern, there are 103 deaths for every 100 live births." In Russia, there are 170 deaths for every 100 births. And it is estimated that 13 percent of married Russian couples of childbearing age are infertile, he says -- twice the figure for those in the United States.
Beichman says the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin is focusing on the "wrong target" to combat this trend -- instead of trying to increase births, it should look for ways of lowering mortality. "Russian death rates are extraordinarily high," he says. Between 1961-62 and 2002, life expectancy for Russian males fell by almost five years, slightly less for females. Increases in mortality are largely due to a statistical spike in cardiovascular disease, or CVD. Ireland has the highest rates of CVD in Western Europe, and Russia's is almost four times that number. "As for violent deaths -- murder, suicide, traffic, poisoning" -- Beichman cites demographer Nicholas Eberstadt as saying Russia is "in a category of its own."
Yet the Kremlin is treating these exploding problems with something akin to indifference, says Beichman. And the administration is utterly unprepared to handle what may be its next major health crisis – HIV/AIDS. This sick man of Europe is "very sick, indeed," he says.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial discusses the reversal yesterday by U.S. President George W. Bush in deciding to allow his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to testify under oath before the commission investigating intelligence failures ahead of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The paper welcomes the reversal, but remarks that Bush "did the right thing only under intense political pressure and after he had already undermined the principles he claimed to be upholding." The administration attached "disturbing conditions" to the agreement. "All in all," the paper says, "it leaves the impression of a White House less interested in helping the 9/11 panel perform its vital task than in protecting the president's political flanks."
The paper says there is merit to the argument that as Bush's "nearest adviser on war, terrorism and other such momentous issues," Rice was "entitled to some confidentiality." But if this was the goal, Rice should have shown some "public discretion." Instead, "she became a part of the president's re-election machine," appearing on numerous talk shows and leading the charge against his critics.
After "months of unacceptable delay," Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also agreed to talk to the commission, but in private, and not under oath. The paper says the White House's "initial refusal to allow Ms. Rice to testify and its cynical use of a confidential adviser as a public accuser would have been bad enough. But they fit an unpleasant pattern. This president has repeatedly abused his executive privilege while seeking to hide behind it."
JANE'S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST
A "Jane's" analysis by J.C.K. Daly says Kyrgyzstan has become an "anti-terrorist epicenter" and a focus of concern for regional states looking to stave off new threat posed by militants. The nations of Central Asia are now "faced with a choice of whether to turn to the USA, Russia or China in the cause of their own security. Unfortunately for the government of Kyrgyzstan, its infrastructure is too small to cope with the terrorist problems spilling across its borders." Kyrgyzstan is a small, landlocked country, and Daly says its "rugged landscape, problematic border controls and widespread corruption have made it a favored sanctuary for terrorists." Moreover, its position "in the heart of Central Asia" has made it "an object of contention between the USA and Russia." Kyrgyzstan currently hosts both Russian and U.S. military bases.
Multilateral efforts to fight militant Islamic insurgencies in the region did not begin after the 11 September attacks in the United States, Daly says. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan joined Moscow and Beijing in the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June of 2001. "For Kyrgyzstan the threat was very real," Daly says. Two months after the SCO came into effect, Kyrgyz officials arrested nine alleged Hizb-ut Tahrir members "who were distributing literature calling for the people to rise up and overthrow the government."
Daly says Washington's maneuvers in the region remain constrained by "geopolitical realities" -- the 50 million mostly Muslim citizens of Eurasia are "heavily influenced by Moscow." And for Kyrgyzstan, "the presence of U.S. and Russian forces is a reminder of the state's inability to defend its citizens."