Prague, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Continuing clashes and civilian hostage taking in Iraq continue to dominate the headlines and much of the debate in the major dailies today. Central and Eastern Europe's waning love affair with the European Union is also discussed, as is political protest in Armenia and the unfortunate parallels between the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press correspondent in the Middle East, was held hostage by Shi'a radicals in Beirut from 1985 to 1991. In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal," he says the conditions that have allowed chaos and terror to prevail in Iraq are similar to those in Lebanon during his captivity, including the "collapse of central government, the lack of a national army [and] the weakness of police and other security agencies."
He says a contributing factor is the "inadequacy of military power, no matter how well-trained, motivated and brave the soldiers."
U.S.-led forces cannot simply pull out of Iraq, as they did "in Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam." But the United States "also cannot dictate the terms and form of an Iraqi government or society. If both Shi'ite and Sunni leaders cannot impose order on their own communities, including the radicals, if they are not willing to use the power they have as religious and political leaders to condemn and bring a halt to these terrible crimes against the innocent, what chance can there be for a stable, even mildly democratic Iraq? And how long can we stay committed to that goal as the death toll among soldiers and civilians mounts?"
The recent spate of civilian hostage taking is intended "to produce fear and humiliation." But Anderson says, "it is also a symptom of a confused, ineffective policy and a chaotic, deteriorating situation in Iraq. And that is just as frightening."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial today says the possible return of Vladimir Meciar to the top spot in Slovak politics "is unfortunately not an isolated event in Eastern and Central Europe." Meciar, Slovakia's "discredited" former prime minister, will face off against his onetime aide in a 17 April runoff for the presidency.
The paper says politicians "espousing nationalism, ethnic bigotry, overly simplistic economic programs and a rejection of all things European are gaining ground around the region." Poles, Slovaks, Romanians, and their regional neighbors are increasingly receptive "to demagogic pitches because they feel betrayed by pro-Europe reformers."
As post-Soviet governments have privatized state-owned companies and cut back the welfare state to meet the budget reforms required by EU membership, some of the reforms have been "needlessly harsh on the poor." Widespread feelings of resentment are then exploited by politicians.
It's easy to understand why the love affair with Europe is on the wane, the paper says. "For a dozen years, joining the Union was held out to Eastern Europeans as the ultimate reward for reforming their ways. It turns out that the reward will be doled out in installments." Farmers in the new member countries will receive a fraction of the agricultural subsidies now given to EU members. Citizens of accession nations will also not yet be allowed to work anywhere in the EU, due to a seven-year moratorium on the east-to-west movement of labor.
Central European nations still lack the strong democratic institutions that can keep "authoritarian-minded politicians" in check. "The New York Times" warns that the rise of Euroskeptic, "protest politicians" in Central Europe "can do lasting damage in nations still finding their way."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
"Inspired by Georgia's 'Rose Revolution,' Armenians are also demanding regime change," writes David Phillips of the Council on Foreign Relations in "The Wall Street Journal Europe." "Thousands of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators have gathered in Yerevan's Freedom Square in recent days. The government arrested hundreds and is threatening violence if protesters march on the presidential palace."
The "corrupt and inept" administration of President Robert Kocharian has turned Armenians' apathy to anger, he says. People, especially the youth, are frustrated by the lack of opportunities.
"To avoid a bloody conflict, an internationally supervised referendum should be held to determine whether a majority want to recall [Kocharian]." Phillips says the United States "should help Armenia manage the next phase of its troubled transition to democracy," which would be "[consistent] with its support for reform in Eastern Europe and emerging post-Soviet states."
He writes: "While making clear that it will not tolerate violence against pro-democracy demonstrators in Freedom Square, Washington can help broker a solution to Armenia's political impasse by encouraging an agreement between the government and opposition to hold a referendum within three months."
THE BOSTON GLOBE
Writing in "The Boston Globe," columnist H.D.S. Greenway says the parallels between the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza "[grow] more striking every day."
"Both the Israeli and American administrations like to say that it isn't occupation that's the problem. It is simply terrorism, they say." But while terrorism is a factor, "the central issue in the territories that Israel occupies is the Israeli occupation, and always has been," he says.
"The vast majority of Arabs see little difference between the two struggles. Whether it be Americans or Israelis supported by Americans, it is Arabs who are living and dying under the occupations."
But the two occupations are also different in key ways, Greenway says. The Americans in Iraq "are trying to get out as quickly as they can and turn the country over to its inhabitants." In contrast, the current Israeli government "hopes to keep as much of the occupied territories as it can."
And whereas the U.S.-led coalition is seeking an Iraqi-led government administration it can negotiate with, "the government of Ariel Sharon has done everything in its power to destroy the Palestinian Authority and the symbols of Palestinian nationalism -- and then he says he has no negotiating partner."
Greenway says it is "curious, given Israel's failure to bring peace and stability to the West Bank and Gaza, that the U.S. military would seek to emulate Israeli tactics." And yet Israelis are now training U.S. forces in counterinsurgency strategy. Meanwhile, the Iraqi rebellion grows more widespread by the day.
THE WASHINGTON POST
"The Washington Post's" Dan Balz says U.S. President George W. Bush was "unapologetic" as he answered questions at a rare news conference last night. Bush "steadfastly refused to admit mistakes and passed up opportunities to explain what it will take to achieve his goal of a free and stable Iraq."
It was soon clear that the president's aim was not to provide new details, consider a shift in policy, "or acknowledge any rethinking of his decisions in the face of recent setbacks. Instead, it was to restate his determination to stay the course and to argue anew that the war in Iraq will make America more secure." But Bush repeatedly sidestepped "pointed questions about his policies and was better at describing his vision of a democratic Iraq than in explaining how he will overcome the mounting obstacles to achieve that vision."
The U.S. president came under pressure to show "that he has a plan for success. On that score, his performance left more questions than answers." Several times he seemed to defer policy decisions to other officials. Asked about whether the United States would have to commit more troops in Iraq, Bush said it would be up to the generals on the ground. When asked to what authority the U.S. coalition would transfer power on 30 June, Bush said it would be up to UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi to put together a ruling coalition that is acceptable to all Iraqis. And when questioned about how long U.S. forces might have to stay in the country, he replied in mere platitudes: "[As] long as necessary and not one day more."