Prague, 18 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the EU's constitutional summit wraps up in Brussels today, we take a look at why Central Europe snubbed the European Union in last week's parliamentary elections; the Kremlin's choice for a new Chechen president; NATO's looming failure in Afghanistan; the trial of former Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii on tax-evasion and fraud charges; and the findings of interim reports on the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
In a contribution to the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," former Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, now of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, discusses why Central European voters resoundingly snubbed the EU in last week's (10-13 June) elections to the European Parliament. Voter turnout fell as low as 17 percent in some of the EU's new members, despite the ballot being their first-ever chance to weigh in on European matters as citizens of the expanded union. Euro-skeptic and nationalist parties did surprisingly well, however, prompting many observers to wonder just where the new EU of 25 is headed.
Sikorski says voters in the new member countries of the former Soviet bloc have "probed new depths of apathy." Countries "that were supposed to rejuvenate the EU with their neophyte energy seem to have lost their enthusiasm almost before they joined."
Several developments have contributed to the Central Europeans' ambivalence, he says. In response to the impending expansion in May, many older EU members passed legislation "barring entrants from enjoying the full benefits of a single market and discriminating against their citizens in access to jobs." France and Germany's willful rejection of the stability pact, which set limits on the budget deficits of EU members, seemed to imply that EU rules only apply to some, at least in the eyes of those that have suffered painful austerity measures as their countries struggled to meet EU membership criteria.
"Apart from the symbolic but marginal benefit of offering the ability to travel around the EU with an identity card rather than a passport, the EU has not yet touched the lives of Central Europeans in any way," Sikorski says. The EU's 1 May enlargement was "frugal," he says -- and Central Europeans "have good reasons to be disappointed."
The lesson to be learned from the "voter-participation fiasco" is that, "instead of offering an opaque new constitution, the EU should set about helping the former captive peoples of the Soviet empire rejoin the family of free, prosperous nations."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
An editorial in Moscow's English-language daily says Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval of the "legal attacks" on Yukos and its former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, are quite clear. Putin wants "to wrest control of Yukos away from its core shareholders and probably to ensure that the former Yukos CEO is locked up and out of the way until after the 2008 presidential election." With these moves, Putin would send "a strong message not just to [Khodorkovskii], but to the entire business elite, to steer clear of politics and avoid crossing the Kremlin."
So it is to be expected that court authorities "are far more likely to show heavy-handedness than they are moderation or attention to legal niceties." But if past experience "is anything to go by, the Yukos saga could drag on for many more months, causing serious damage to the investment climate and to Putin personally."
Even when it is all over, two unpleasant possibilities will remain. If the Yukos charges turn out to be an isolated case, "it will only serve to highlight the selective application of justice and the general arbitrariness of the legal system."
But if other indictments aimed at oligarchs and their companies are to follow, it would give "[the] impression of a genuine attempt to impose the rule of law, but would create enormous instability [and] seriously undermine investor confidence."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
The paper's Timur Aliev says the new Kremlin pick for president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, "has little if any experience in running an economy, he lacks charisma, and his public administration skills have been limited to law enforcement." Alkhanov would replace Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who was killed in a 9 May explosion at a stadium in Grozny.
The paper says a "carefully staged meeting" at the Kremlin yesterday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Alkhanov "sent a clear signal to all potential candidates as to whom the Kremlin supports in the race." Ten other candidates have registered to run in the 29 August election.
When Kadyrov ran in October, the paper says, "the Kremlin made sure all other viable candidates were barred form the race." Kadyrov won easily, with over 80 percent of the vote despite widespread claims of vote fraud.
Aliev says the Kremlin's new pick is basing his campaign on pledges to continue with his predecessor's methods, and he already "enjoys the full support of Kadyrov's clan."
But Alkhanov "may find it difficult to become a real leader in an environment dominated by such heavyweights as Ramzan Kadyrov," the former president's son and the head of a security force that is several-thousand strong. Alkhanov may find himself "reduced to a figurehead following the line pursued by his powerful backers in Moscow and Grozny."
The paper says that “[one] obvious quality makes Alkhanov valuable in the eyes of the Kremlin -- his fierce loyalty." This allows Moscow to continue with its "Chechenization" policy of transferring power in the breakaway republic to pro-Moscow ethnic Chechens.
Following the renewed debate over an alleged link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the "Chicago Tribune" says: "Top officials of the Bush administration and their critics probably will go to their graves debating whether Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were diabolically linked."
A pair of staff reports released on 16 June stated that there was "no credible evidence" that Iraq and Al-Qaeda cooperated in planning the 11 September attacks on the United States. Earlier in the week, on 14 June, the U.S. vice president stated that, nevertheless, Iraq and Al-Qaeda did have "long-established ties."
And the interim report does not put the outstanding questions to rest concerning the nature of these links. But "those who are intrigued by the Al Qaeda-Iraq debate are free to keep waging it. The danger, though, is that far more compelling parts of the staff [report] won't get the attention they deserve."
The paper says: "Almost three years after Sept. 11, we're still learning how much we didn't know. What emerges from the staff's conclusions is a portrait of Al-Qaeda as an ambitious, adaptive menace capable of taking virtual control of national governments in Afghanistan and Sudan."
So there is a choice to be made, the Chicago daily says. "We can focus on what Al-Qaeda did or didn't do with Iraq before the last war. Or we can focus on the broad and urgent war against would-be mass murderers that is still very much under way."
When Western powers went into Afghanistan to topple the ruling Taliban, their leaders promised the fledgling administration in Kabul that it would not be abandoned as it sought to reconstruct its country after decades of war and repression. And yet in many ways, "that promise now seems to lie broken."
The weekly says: "Afghans themselves have valiantly done their bit: they established an interim government, then held a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to set up a more legitimate administration. They drafted a constitution, and [are] preparing to hold democratic presidential and parliamentary elections in September. But the Western powers have not kept their side of the pact."
Providing basic security has been left to the inadequate and under-resourced International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the 6,500 troops of which are almost all based in Kabul. And the weekly says, "Without security, there can be no development." The activities of the UN and most aid agencies have been seriously curtailed due to safety concerns. And in the absence of security, "political development also grinds to a halt."
"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this represents a disgraceful failure by NATO," the editorial says.
"Afghanistan ought to have been a golden opportunity for NATO to show its continuing usefulness in the post-Cold War world by conducting exactly the sort of 'out-of-area' operation to which it needs to adapt itself if it is not to die.
"There is still time for NATO to redeem itself, but it is running out fast."
History is likely to be harsh when it judges the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush regarding Iraq, says an editorial in Paris's leading daily. Perhaps he will succeed in stabilizing the country, even if the situation on the ground today hardly seems a basis for optimism. Nevertheless, the fact will remain that the whole affair will have created lasting divisions among allies and tarnished the image of his country.
Another serious blow to Bush's credibility came on 16 June with the publication of two staff reports by the commission looking into the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. The reports "demolished" one of the main arguments the White House used to support its war in Iraq, namely that Saddam Hussein had cooperated with Al-Qaeda in planning the attacks, the editorial says. The commission this week said there was "no credible proof" of any such collaboration.
The alleged Saddam Hussein-Osama bin Laden partnership now seems likely to have been fabricated, the paper says. The claim did, however, hold tremendous sway in the United States, as many Americans believed in Saddam's complicity in the 11 September tragedy. And the wake-up call in American opinion may be brutal in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential elections on 2 November.
The paper says that one is led to wonder whether Bush willfully lied or was carried away by a hawkish strategy targeting a Saddam Hussein that he viewed as his sworn enemy even before entering the White House. Perhaps he simply cloaked his policy in a "sellable" package for a U.S. populace traumatized by the 2001 attacks.
But the result of all of this has been a United States that has lost much credibility and an unprecedented wave of hatred in the Muslim world -- and a needless diversion from the much more crucial task of confronting terrorism.