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Western Press Review: Belarusian Elections, Human Rights In Afghanistan

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's Western press commentary addresses a government crackdown in Belarus in the run-up to September's presidential election, labor standards and the World Trade Organization, human rights in Afghanistan, and the UN conference on racism, due to begin on 31 August in Durban, South Africa. Other topics addressed include economics in the Central Asian republics and the NATO-led disarmament of ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.


An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the upcoming presidential election in Belarus and calls upon Western democracies to take an active role in ensuring a fair outcome. In recent weeks, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government has led a crackdown, blocking publication of the opposition's campaign literature and interrupting newspaper press runs.

"The New York Times" says: "With the candidate of a unified opposition given a chance of winning an honestly conducted vote next month, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems determined to crush his critics, while lashing out at the West. It is up to the outside world, primarily the European Union, Russia and the United States, to insist on a free campaign and honest vote count."

"In particular," the newspaper continues, "Brussels and Washington need to rally behind the plans by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to supervise thousands of election monitors in Belarus. Mr. [Vladimir] Goncharik's candidacy offers Belarusians a realistic chance to rid themselves of the oppressive Mr. Lukashenka. He should not be allowed to rob them of that opportunity."


In the "Financial Times," Columbia University economics professor Jagdish Bhagwati says the World Trade Organization should not take an active role in labor issues, and addresses several common concerns about labor standards worldwide. He looks at suggestions that Western nations should link the issue of labor standards to trade agreements, in order to ensure developing countries meet minimum standards for workers.

He says that these policies are motivated by two fears. First, that wages and working standards in the West will collapse as freer trade with poor nations allows capital to move to countries with lower standards. Western workers fear this will lower wages and may lose them their own hard-won labor standards. But Bhagwati refutes this: "Most trade economists have now concluded that trade with poor countries is not the main driver of the downward pressure on wages in rich countries."

A second concern involves real wages and standards in other nations. He continues: "Making market access conditional on satisfaction of labor standards at the WTO creates two problems: First, it makes the use of trade sanctions the way to advance standards; second, it lays the responsibility squarely with the WTO. Trade sanctions can flag complex problems such as child labor but they cannot solve them," Bhagwati says. "That requires working with local pressure groups, governments, parents and schools" -- in other words, with local advocate organizations.


Also in "The New York Times," South Asian affairs analyst Karl Inderfurth examines the possibilities for promoting increased respect for human rights in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

"Is there a way to persuade the Taliban to pursue a path of greater tolerance?" he asks. "Given the Taliban's suspicion of the West, the more logical persuaders may be fellow Muslims and Islamic governments. They are in the best position to speak with the Taliban about the interpretation of their faith and of the Koran. Indeed, it would not be appropriate for non-Muslims to presume to give instruction on these matters."

Inderfurth continues: "Of particular importance among Muslim nations are the three that have recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers, the only countries in the world to do so. These countries -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- have leverage with the Taliban and could help improve conditions by making it clear that they would consider withdrawing their formal recognition if the Taliban continue in their war on other religions -- which is a distortion of Islam."


"The racism summit is doomed before it even begins," is the conviction of an editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." Neither U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell nor representatives from Israel are willing to take part in the Durban summit on racism, since a resolution is being prepared that equates Zionism with racism.

"Intransigence and hostility prevail in the debate" before the meeting has even been convened, the paper says. The commentary then expresses its opinion as to the reasons for America's refusal to participate. These are connected with internal policy. First, the government takes into account the pressure of influential Jewish groups as the situation in the Middle East is becoming ever more critical. Secondly, the United States is confronting its own history of slavery. A team of black lawyers currently wants to prepare charges and demand compensation, the newspaper says.

But, the paper concludes: "Without the Americans, the UN conference will not send a strong impulse against racism and discrimination out to the world. Already, Durban is faced with confrontation instead of a covenant of peace. A reversal of this trend is unlikely."


In the "International Herald Tribune," contributor David Harris of the American Jewish Committee says that the UN conference on racism has already been "diverted from its purpose by the determination of a few, with the acquiescence of many." He asks, "How is it possible that after the world's nations agreed months ago that there would be no mention of specific countries in the conference's final document, only one country, Israel, is referred to repeatedly and accused of a long litany of alleged wrongs?"

He continues: "The Arab-Israeli conflict is political and not racial in nature. How is it possible that it has been thrust upon the Durban agenda?"


On the same subject, in a contribution to the "Los Angeles Times," Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says that a serious discussion of racism today must take into account the policies of Israel practiced in the occupied territories.

He writes: "Every aspect of life in the occupied territories depends on one's ethnicity. Where one can live, the roads on which one may drive, freedom of movement, access to education, the right to bear arms in self-defense, land and water use, and the entire range of social services are administered in favor of Jews in a manner at least as discriminatory as that of apartheid-era South Africa."


In "Eurasia View," contributing EurasiaNet editor Alec Appelbaum presents a review of the persistent economic problems of nations in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The countries "are not growing as fast or as steadily as one might hope," he writes.

Armenia's biggest problem is the rate at which people leave it for better opportunities elsewhere. While the economy is growing and wages are climbing, "there's still too little legitimate work for the available labor pool."

Azerbaijan has used its oil reserves to grow its economy by 9.1 percent so far this year, Appelbaum writes. But "even with the gain, the average Azerbaijani earns less than a dollar a day."

Georgia, in contrast, remains heavily agrarian -- accounting for a fifth of its production -- while "the shadow economy accounts for nearly a third of all output and more than half of small business activity."

Kazakhstan, he says, has became the region's star by both tapping natural resources and building a nearly genuine financial system. And this growth seems to be spreading throughout its economy. However, like all its neighbors, Kazakhstan still struggles with corruption.

Kyrgyzstan, "once an emblem of democratic reform, has come to symbolize frustration as journalists and dissidents have complained of crackdowns," Appelbaum writes, adding that its economy "looks grim." The nation has begun restructuring its large foreign debt, but appears mired "in very difficult conditions."

Tajikistan managed to boost its GDP by 8.9 percent this year, although its most notable industry is still the distribution of heroin from Afghanistan -- the best pay in the country still comes from smuggling.

Turkmenistan has significantly improved per capita income according to official data. But these numbers are dubious, Appelbaum says. "With poverty rates almost as high as Kyrgyzstan's, this apparently rich state hides a wealth of problems."

Finally, both Uzbekistan's GDP and real incomes are growing. But Appelbaum says that those figures "scarcely bring Uzbekistan out of crisis. It remains hugely dependent on agriculture for revenue, and its shrinking Aral Sea has made the procurement of water [another] crisis."


In the "Chicago Tribune," syndicated columnist William Pfaff says that peace in Macedonia depends on whether the ethnic Albanian forces -- having won their legitimate goals -- will know when to stop. He writes: "The proclaimed aim of the guerrillas is to win for Macedonian Albanians the status they have until now been denied: the right to school and university instruction in their language, official status for the Albanian language, an equitable presence of Albanians in police and government, and power devolution."

Pfaff says that ethnic Albanians "now have the essentials of what they have wanted. They now are an acknowledged political force in Macedonia, have established this position through armed action and have seen it ratified by NATO and the European community. [The] Albanian militants should know that it is time now to stop," says Pfaff. "As matters stand, they have won what they had a right to win."


An editorial in "The Irish Times" says that "NATO's mandate in Macedonia is to collect arms from the Albanian rebel force to confirm their acceptance of the peace agreement negotiated earlier this month -- not to disarm the rebels completely."

"There is a clear symbolic aspect to its involvement -- testing the Albanians' willingness to abide by the [13 August peace] agreement. If implemented incrementally, this will demonstrate it can work and is preferable to war. [Despite] the hostility it has provoked on the majority [Macedonian] side, this is certainly the preferable course. The surrender of high-quality weapons allows for the hope that confidence in the agreement can be built up gradually."


A "Financial Times" editorial says that the handover of weapons in Macedonia is a "test of good faith" that may also encourage the Macedonian parliament to approve the constitutional changes needed to offer more equality to ethnic Albanians.

The paper writes: "The biggest risk to the NATO operation is that sections of the Slav population and the Macedonian government feel betrayed. They abandoned their traditional allegiance to the Serbs during the 1999 Kosovo conflict and backed NATO. They expected a reward. Instead, they were pressed to sign a peace deal that they regard as tilted toward the ethnic Albanians."

The paper adds that NATO's estimate of 3,300 weapons to be collected from the insurgents has fueled Slav suspicions, as has the 30-day time limit. This may not be enough of a commitment, the paper says. "To avert the worst, Europe's leaders must make the present mission work. That means heavier armed protection for soldiers on the ground. It may also mean staying longer than a month in Macedonia."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)