Prague, 28 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press commentary today finds much discussion of the European Union as it gets ready to accept 10 new members on 1 May. We also take a look at EU-Russian relations in light of an expanded partnership agreement declared yesterday in Brussels; dividing up the riches of the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea region; a controversial bill in the Russian Parliament proposing restrictions on public demonstrations; and ongoing events in Iraq.
THE IRISH TIMES
An editorial in the Irish daily today looks at the declaration on EU-Russian partnership adopted yesterday in Brussels "as part of a last-minute deal" that extends their pre-existing cooperation agreements automatically to the 10 new member states joining the EU this week (1 May). The paper says, "A Europe without dividing lines is certainly desirable and in the interests of both sides; but whether in reality it is brought closer by EU enlargement is doubtful."
Moscow had feared the loss of its special trade relationships with some of its former satellites when they join the EU. It also sought to address its concerns regarding Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states and to ensure free access to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, soon to be surrounded by two EU states -- Lithuania and Poland -- and the Baltic Sea. But yesterday the Kremlin dropped these concerns "and reached agreement in a spirit of goodwill."
The paper says the EU's expanded new border "introduces new dividing lines between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, several of the Balkan states and the new members of the EU with which there was up to now relatively free movement." New EU members are likely to wish to keep their borders porous, "but it will be difficult to do so in the face of countervailing pressure to prevent labor migration, refugee and criminal trafficking across them."
This issue "will continue to divide states and peoples in this new Europe," the paper says. "A fortress policy risks storing up resentments which will become more pressing as time goes by. Open political and economic engagement is the best way to stop that happening."
Writing from Brussels, the paper's Ian Black says, "It is one of the EU's most cherished ambitions to play a bigger and more coherent role on the world stage. But taking in 10 new members to create a club of 25 countries is likely -- in the short term at least -- to make achieving that more difficult."
The European Union has little interest in competing with the U.S. militarily, and few EU members are willing to allot much more to defense budgets. But if the 450 million people of the expanded EU want to exercise their power, "something is going to have to change." The new Europeans "may then no longer be derided as playing 'wimps' to American 'warriors' and develop some clout in the Middle East, North Korea and beyond."
But so far, the prospects for this "do not look good." The EU still struggles to forge a common foreign policy and a Europe that includes several former Soviet satellites may have more difficulty agreeing on a strategy toward Russia.
But Black says in the long run, the EU's continual process "of bargaining and trade-offs" -- such as the offer of a budget deal in exchange for a member nation's shift on policy -- is likely to bring the old and new members of Europe closer together.
"Polling shows that the new Europeans share the views of older ones about issues including the death penalty, global warming and nuclear proliferation," says Black. And the union's smaller countries will seek to strengthen the EU's global role, for "what influence can there be for Malta or Estonia if not through the union?"
THE MOSCOW TIMES
An editorial in "The Moscow Times" discusses the revisions made to a controversial State Duma bill that would have severely restricted public protests. The bill was set to ban demonstrations "outside government buildings, international organizations, embassies, courts, jails, hospitals, schools, churches, concert halls, theaters and stadiums."
The proposal was supported only by the Unified Russia party, and "provoked an immediate outcry from nearly everyone else." Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted his own revisions this week (26 April), allowing demonstrations to take place at many of the sites the bill sought to prohibit, including outside government buildings. But protests at Putin's own residences would remain taboo, as they would outside courts, jails, railroads, pipelines and "environmentally hazardous sites."
But "The Moscow Times" says the whole month-long debate over the bill "smacks of a stage-managed PR [public relations] stunt enabling Putin to position himself as an enlightened tsar, the only person capable of checking the authoritarian, backward and 'unconstitutional' forces in the country."
The paper also questions for whose benefit such a PR stunt would have been staged: would the show have been planned for a domestic audience, or geared more toward foreign consumption? "Putin is clearly concerned about his image in the West as an authoritarian leader," the paper remarks.
Or could the ploy have been purely strategic? "Spook people with a scary first draft, so that the final version seems moderate and criticism is muted."
The paper says the motive was most likely "all of the above."
A joint article today by Sonya Faure and Muriel Gremillet takes a look at some of the social implications of EU enlargement, particularly with regard to wage and labor issues. The authors say a persistent disparity in wages, the “delocalization” of labor and standards in the workplace are just some of the issues widening the gap between the EU's 15 existing members and the 10 new entrants.
Wages in the new "10" are far below European standards. Taxation on wages and corporate profits are also very low in the East, which helps lure foreign investment, from which these countries draw their growth. And this factor may act as a disincentive for certain reforms.
For the past several years, Eastern and Central European countries have been a haven for multinationals, while their governments cut social expenditures. Welfare spending in the new EU members is well below the rest of Europe. According to the International Labor Office, the Czech Republic spends 19 percent of its GDP on welfare, as opposed to EU nations' 27.4 percent. Most of the accession countries, which have not completed their transition to a service economy, also have above-average unemployment rates.
Labor migration has been a much-publicized source of concern. Germany fears an influx of Poles after 1 May and the 15 current EU members have all placed some restrictions on employing workers from the accession countries. But the authors say the new limitations were designed more to calm domestic fears than to limit a potential flood of Eastern laborers. Mobility in Europe remains very low, as only 2 percent of Europeans live and work outside their country of origin.
Official European rhetoric tries to conceal these disparities, and some observers have suggested that some of the finer social questions were completely ignored during discussions on enlargement. But Faure and Gremillet say the arrival of the 10 new members starkly reveals that a common "social Europe" has never, in fact, existed.
JANE'S INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
An analysis by John Donaldson of the International Boundaries Research Unit of Britain's Durham University takes a look at the debate over dividing the Caspian Sea's vast energy resources among its five littoral states.
He says recent progress in concluding bilateral boundary agreements "has attracted increasing political and commercial interest among states and companies eager to explore and exploit the region's energy resources." The Caspian holds an estimated 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves and 4 percent of its reserves of natural gas.
Multilateral negotiations continue to drag on, says Donaldson, but there has been some recent success with bilateral discussions. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia recently signed agreements on sea bed boundaries, which allows them to move forward with plans to develop the region.
But Turkmenistan "has been reluctant to commit" to any specific border delineations with its neighbors, while Iran "strongly disagrees" with recent attempts to decide boundaries "and refuses to recognize any of the boundary agreements so far achieved."
Nevertheless, Donaldson says: "The environmental accord agreed by all five states in Tehran on 4 November 2003 indicates a willingness to cooperate on environmental issues, and the need to address pollution and biological resources, especially the precious sturgeon fisheries."
In addition to the border dispute, another factor affecting the region's development is the resurgent terrorist threat. "Fears are growing of terrorist attacks on production facilities and pipelines from Islamist extremists groups in Central Asia or from the numerous separatist groups emerging throughout the Caucasus," Donaldson says.
While there has already been some cooperation on security, superceding all issues is the continuing competition between Russia and the United States for regional dominance. Their "jockeying [serves] to increase the volatility of the situation."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Veteran columnist Nicholas Kristof offers a few suggestions on how to wrench success from the U.S. occupation of Iraq, now that Washington is "chest-deep in the mire." He says if the United States gives up in Iraq, the country "will collapse into civil war, leaving Iraqis worse off than they were under Saddam and turning the country with the world's second-largest oil reserves into a failed state that spawns terrorists."
Kristof suggests deploying 25,000 additional troops, at least temporarily, "to try to achieve a secure transition." He says the U.S.-led coalition should adhere to the 30 June date for a transfer of power, and forget about notions of "limited sovereignty" -- a stipulation that only inflames Iraqi nationalism, he says.
U.S. forces should also think long and hard before deciding to launch an offensive against the Sunni-led resistance in Al-Fallujah and the followers of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Najaf. "Most Iraqis know that Muqtada al-Sadr is a hotheaded blowhard," says Kristof. "But nationalism leads Iraqis to rally around anyone we go after." The best course would be to leave al-Sadr alone, and let the revered and more moderate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani discredit him.
Kristof also says the United States should withdraw its support for Ahmad Chalabi, whom he calls one of many "American stooges who undermine the legitimacy of any government they are in." Kristof also suggests Washington drop its backing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose bloody policies in the Middle East undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Finally, Kristof sanctions the reinstatement of some of the "most professional and least political" of the Ba'athist generals. "Iraq's most desperate need now is for security, and we need them."