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Western Press Review: New Afghan Leaders, Putin's Russia, And Preparing For E-Day

Prague, 27 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today discusses a variety of topics. Among them are heightened tensions between India and Pakistan as both nations build up troops along the Kashmiri border, Ariel Sharon's decision to deny Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat access to Christmas Mass in Bethlehem, and forging a lasting peace in Afghanistan. Other discussion centers on Vladimir Putin's Russia; NATO's role in the Balkans; and the euro, as the 12 euro-zone states get ready to usher in the new notes and coins on 1 January.


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," reporter Masood Farivar -- a member of the Afghan resistance during the Soviet occupation -- writes that the political backdrop to the new interim government in Afghanistan "bears an ominous resemblance" to the anarchy in the country in the mid-1990s. "The same warlords who once turned Afghanistan into a killing field have returned to their former seats of power following the Taliban's collapse, even as Hamid Karzai, the new leader, seeks to unify his divided country."

Farivar goes on to say that in order to avoid the chaos brought by warlordism, a strong central authority must be established. In doing this, Farivar says the new Afghan government and the British-led security force could take some lessons from the outgoing Taliban regime.

"The Taliban gained wide popularity within the Afghan population by restoring order to a lawless society. [The] Taliban [disarmed] the population, dismantled the various warring factions, and replaced them with one authority: their own. Once the Taliban consolidated power, and Afghans understood who was in charge, everything fell into place."

The international security force has a mandate that is too limited, says Farivar. The British-led force, he adds, must make it clear that if the warlords refuse to work with the government in Kabul, they will "be dealt with just as the Taliban were."


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger is critical of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision not to allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit Bethlehem for the traditional Christmas midnight Mass. Frankenberger says in making this decision, Sharon was using a logic "in which the idea of political symbolism is little more than humiliation and provocation."

Frankenberger says this event has unwittingly earned the Palestinian leader a small public-relations victory. "Mr. Arafat, whose authority and willingness to compromise had rightly been doubted, if not disputed, only a few days ago, received the moral support of a rather conciliatory world audience."

At the same time, he adds, "Israel has repeatedly asked itself this year why its image in the world has been so heavily tarnished in spite of Palestinian terrorism. [One answer] lies in the force of the pictures shown on television and a cynically promoted cult of victimhood among the Palestinians. The other is Mr. Sharon's lack of understanding of the media effects of a policy of punishment, the logic of which is not always easy to follow."


An editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor" looks at the growing tensions between India and Pakistan, and calls on the United States to help defuse what it calls an "explosive situation."

"The successful campaign in Afghanistan must not give way to an ominous conflict between South Asia's two nuclear powers," the paper says. It goes on to note that India believes the perpetrators responsible for the 13 December attack on its parliament building are from Islamic groups that are based in Pakistan but operate from the disputed area of Kashmir. India has demanded Pakistan crack down on these groups, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has responded by arresting some militants and freezing their assets.

But "military momentum could all too easily overtake diplomacy," the editorial says. Pakistan, it concludes, "needs to continue reining in its extremists. [But India also] needs to contain its justifiable anger."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the EU and NATO Vitomir Miles Raguz discusses the possibilities for expanding NATO membership to the Balkans. He says the Balkans are "generally overlooked" in discussions of NATO expansion. Yet, he says, perhaps no state deserves membership in NATO or the Partnership for Peace alliance more than Croatia.

Raguz notes that during the Kosovo crisis, Croatia opened its airspace to the NATO alliance. Furthermore, he adds, "the smooth transformation of Zagreb politics in January 2000 from one-party monolith to multiparty government turned out to be a harbinger for further democratization in the region."

Raguz notes that a major stumbling block to membership for Bosnia, meanwhile, is that it has two armies -- one Serb, the other Muslim-Croat -- and NATO cannot accept a state with two armies. A better alternative, he says, would be "to restructure the country's security needs [through a] near-total demilitarization, with a beefed-up police and border force and non-aggression agreements with neighbors."

Regarding Yugoslavia, Raguz says the West must exercise patience on the issue of NATO membership. The risk that the Balkan states "may fall prey to regressive political and economic forces is real," says Raguz. "NATO now has the opportunity to play an important leadership role in making sure that doesn't happen."


An editorial in "Le Monde" says that since the 11 September attacks on the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin has "given the world a lesson in tactical intelligence." Against the advice of many of his counselors, he pledged support to the U.S. in its antiterrorism campaign and successfully convinced the Americans that Russia's misunderstood war in Chechnya was a similar struggle, painting the Chechens and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden as the same enemy.

"Putin," the paper says, "knew how to sell the formula perfectly." And the U.S., it adds, has been grateful, granting the Russian president a more "accommodating" American stance on the war in Chechnya.

It is true that some of the Chechens are Islamists, "Le Monde" says, even if "no one has been able to prove that Chechens were in Afghanistan alongside bin Laden." But the paper says Russia should not be excused from pursuing a war in Chechnya waged by "exacting [a toll] on the civilian population, generalized torture, summary executions, by 'disappearances' and by criminal kidnappings, by blind machine-gunnings and by bombarding whole villages with heavy artillery."

The paper writes that if "terrorism" implies committing violence against a population to achieve political ends, Russia's Chechen war earns this title. And the silence of the U.S. president and Westerners in general undermines American rhetoric in the fight against terrorism. "Le Monde" concludes, "Apparently, there is some terrorism that does not trouble the White House."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says: "The evidence is growing that Vladimir Putin sees no connection between the new partnership he says he is seeking between Russia and the West and his own domestic policies, which frequently violate Western norms of democracy and human rights. Mr. Putin continues to repress independent media that report critically on his government, and he appears determined to continue his military's brutal campaign against rebels in Chechnya." The paper cites the case of journalist Grigorii Pasko, who on 25 December was sentenced to four years in prison for writing about the radioactive waste-dumping practices of the Russian navy.

Pasko was tried for treason and espionage, charges the paper calls "transparently trumped-up." It notes that human rights organization Amnesty International and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders have spoken out in Pasko's defense.

"Their words offer the hope that Mr. Putin might yet be convinced that cases like Mr. Pasko's are incompatible with his new foreign policy; that his government cannot simultaneously conduct secret espionage trials of journalists and intellectuals, and demand the right to take part as an equal partner in decision-making by the Western democracies inside NATO."

But the paper says Putin "won't be convinced by human rights activists. [He] needs to get the message more forcefully from Western governments, starting with the Bush administration."


In Britain's "Financial Times," Peter Norman considers the 1 January introduction of euro single currency notes and coins in the 12 euro-zone countries. "Money is one of the most tangible symbols of a nation's sovereignty and history. The changeover will be a dramatic political step for the EU. [Twelve] countries are shedding part of their history and identity. The French franc dates back to the Middle Ages. A Greek drachma existed in the sixth century before Christ." In addition, he says, the replacement of the 12 euro-zone nations' currencies will involve Europe's "biggest-ever peacetime logistical operation."

Norman says the euro's launch may spur competition and keep inflation down "by easing cross-border comparisons of costs and prices." "Much will then hinge on whether euro-zone growth in 2002 can recover in line with the hopes of the European Commission and other forecasters. Economic recovery and rising employment would help cement the single currency in the affections of its citizens, could pave the way for more political integration and even encourage adoption of the euro by the U.K., Sweden, and Denmark."


In the "International Herald Tribune," a news analysis by John Vinocur says the essential issue for Europe's economic future "is not so much the world's acceptance of its new currency -- which will probably go fine -- but its own difficulties in making structural changes."

Inflexibility, he says, "dims the limited prospects for growth that have made the euro [lag] behind the dollar." Without new reforms, writes Vinocur, "a further widening in the difference between living standards in Europe and the United States becomes a likelihood, whatever the resolutions the EU makes at its summit meetings."

The immediate problem, he says, are 2002 elections in the EU nations with the two biggest economies. Vinocur says that in Germany, where Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is seeking re-election, there is virtually "no near-term prospect of the government's risking [a] liberalization of the job market that it avoided undertaking in its first three years in office."

The same phenomenon applies to France, says Vinocur. Before elections, President Jacques Chirac is unlikely to reform protected sectors of the economy or scale back the public sector. Vinocur says more structural reform "in budgetary, labor, and financial market policies" will be needed. But "in real political life in Europe," he says, "that [means] slow, even halting, progress."