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Western Press Review: German Elections, Russia's Offensive In Chechnya, Balkans

Prague, 9 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today looks at a variety of issues, including naming a challenger for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany's upcoming elections, Estonia's political walk-out, and the growing carnage in Chechnya. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's new antiterrorism measures and the Balkans are also discussed, among other issues.


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" looks at the potential challengers in the upcoming German election. It notes that the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is struggling to find a suitable candidate to challenge Social Democrat incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The choice is between Angela Merkel, the CDU party leader, and Edmond Stoiber, the Bavarian prime minister and head of the conservative Christian Social Union.

The paper suggests that Stoiber may make a more promising challenger to Chancellor Schroeder. "Mr. Stoiber is made of sterner stuff. [His] home state, with its low unemployment and high-technology prowess, is a showcase for the rest of Germany. His call for a clearer definition of powers between Brussels, the nation-states, and the regions [of the EU] has made him one of the most influential voices on Europe in Germany."

The paper describes Stoiber's stance on the EU as "hard-line." He "opposes the steady accumulation of power in Brussels," it says. "On occasions, he is unashamedly populist. He is a fierce critic of the European Commission's competition and state aid policies." On the economy, the paper adds, "his instinct has generally been more provincial protectionist than pro-competition."

The incumbent, Schroeder, "remains the favorite in this year's election but the economic slowdown has shortened the odds," says the editorial. "A Stoiber candidacy guarantees a serious contest. That can only be in Germany's interest."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" looks back over the tenure of Estonia's outgoing prime minister, Mart Laar, in light of his government walkout yesterday. "Mart Laar ran Estonia like a futuristic laboratory for free-market ideas. Alas, the results of the experiments carried out in this Nordic country carry significant lessons for Europe as a whole."

The editorial notes that in Laar's first two years in government, beginning in 1992, "Estonia set up a currency board, pegging the kroon against the mark, and got rid of all -- yes all -- trade barriers. Taxes and subsidies were slashed, too. The stage was set for Estonia to become [Europe's] answer to Hong Kong. And so it did." The editorial notes that according to World Bank estimates, the Estonian economy grew 6.4 percent last year.

The editorial says in addition, Laar as prime minister helped move Estonia and the other Baltic countries closer to the West. "It's a good bet that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will be invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the Prague summit in November," it says. The Baltics "are also likely" to join the EU as early as 2004. But the editorial adds that it is not clear whether Estonia should join the EU. "The terms of membership, as currently written, threaten to seriously dilute Estonia's free-market credentials," it says.


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commends Western powers' support of the Afghan interim government. "Alone, this devastated land cannot stand on its own feet," says the paper. Afghanistan has paid a heavy price since the retreat of Soviet troops and since the great powers left it in the lurch following the Soviet collapse. And it is important that this is not repeated. This means the terrorists must be entirely neutralized, says the paper.

Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai is fully aware of this situation, although he risks alienating the Pashtuns politically. His dilemma, says the commentary, is between neither "falling into the American embrace, nor giving his wholehearted approval to the continued U.S. bombing." Even though he recognizes how much he owes the Americans for his current position, the editorial says, he should not condone the victimization of civilians in the fight against terrorism.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" looks at the latest Russian offensive in Chechnya, which began on 30 December -- while, the paper says, "most of the world was distracted by New Year's celebrations." "Russian forces swept into the village of Tsotsin-Yurt and, according to the [human rights] group Memorial, began shooting Chechen men indiscriminately. According to the official Russian account, more than 100 were killed over the course of several days; the independent Glasnost [Foundation] reported finding 200 corpses of civilians."

The editorial quotes Glasnost as saying that none of the casualties was identified as a rebel, "but relatives were not allowed to take the bodies for burial unless they signed a testimony that the killed person belonged to the Chechen rebels." "Russian forces then sealed off the town of Argun, beginning on 3 January, and launched a 'cleansing operation,' [while the] survivors are released to their relatives in exchange for ransom payments."

The editorial says that in light of this latest offensive in Chechnya, moves to shut down Russia's last private television station, and the Christmas Day conviction of journalist Grigorii Pasko "on trumped-up charges of espionage," the U.S. administration is "following these developments." But the paper says the real question is whether respect for democratic freedoms and human rights "will be a condition of a Russian-Western partnership or merely a fond wish."


A "Financial Times" editorial discusses the Southeast Europe Stability Pact launched in Sarajevo in 1999. It says, "Despite some modest achievements, the pact has not fulfilled its aim of giving a clear sense of direction to the region's governments or to aid donors."

But the arrival of a new chief this month, Erhard Busek of Austria, gives the pact a chance to renew itself. "His priority should be to make clear that the pact is mainly a framework for long-term development. It cannot short-circuit the years of political and economic progress required to realize the dreams shared by all the region's countries, especially for European Union membership. But it must help those countries towards that goal."

The editorial says Busek should "promote ever-stronger ties between the region and the EU. [Brussels] should be pushed to offer more generous terms in pre-accession agreements. The current aid and trade packages are not enough," it adds.

The editorial says economic reform is also key, for "without faster economic growth, the region is unlikely to reduce the high levels of unemployment that breed violence. [Most] important is avoiding further bloodshed. Years of painstaking peacemaking effort can be lost in a single incident," it writes. "In spite of the focus on Afghanistan, the Balkans must stay on the diplomatic agenda."


In France's daily "Liberation," staff writer Fabrice Rousselot discusses the controversy surrounding federal compensation for the families of victims of the September attacks on the U.S.

He says a "vast polemic" is raging between several families of the victims and the U.S. government. The federal funds are being awarded based on a calculation that considers "economic" compensation according to the age, income, and the size of the family of the victim, while adding a "non-economic" compensation for psychological loss. Rousselot says the results are shocking.

"According to the proposed charter, the widower of a cleaning lady with two children would [receive] the equivalent of $500,000. The widow of a Wall Street broker with two children would [receive] $4.3 million...." Thus, "What is the price of human life?" asks Rousselot.

He says another criticism stems from the fact that the fund "deducts from the federal compensation any amount [covered by] personal life insurance." As a result, Rousselot says some families could receive nothing if the government decides they are sufficiently covered by personal insurance.

Rousselot notes that the fund was created within the framework of the U.S. law awarding assistance to airlines. The legislation sets specific limits on the financial responsibility of the airlines in the event of a lawsuit. Thus, it stipulates "that those who [receive] compensation are [also] enjoined not to institute any proceedings against these companies," he says.


British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Afghanistan is the subject of an editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." This is the first time in years that a Western diplomat has dared to go to Afghanistan, the editorial says. Kabul's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, is indeed grateful for this support for his unfortunate country. The paper says it seems that "this time, help and long-term involvement is at hand."

But the editorial adds that, of course, deeds must follow the West's encouraging words. "We can only hope that such pledges will be more well-founded than the vain promises Blair makes at home," it says.


A "Eurasia View" editorial looks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's recent moves to focus on antiterrorism and security measures. The SCO's members -- China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- had previously focused mainly on promoting regional trade.

But a 7 January meeting between the foreign ministers of SCO members announced "the formation of a regional antiterrorism organization, and a coordinated emergency response mechanism. Such moves would enable the SCO to rapidly intervene in a Central Asian crisis," says the paper. But it also notes that regional powers -- specifically China and Russia -- may also be "eager to diminish the United States' growing profile in the area."

The editorial says Human Rights Watch has cited recent developments, particularly in Uzbekistan, "as cause for concern that regional efforts to bolster security are eroding basic rights and democratic norms." Meanwhile, China has intensified its pursuit of Uighur separatists, and the Russian campaign against so-called "Islamic militants" in Chechnya continues.

"Eurasia View" concludes: "Beyond a desire to court international public opinion, [there] are few incentives for SCO members to improve the human rights climate in their respective nations. All six states [remain] concerned about Islamic radicalism and appear inclined to embrace any measure that reduces this threat. In addition, the United States has not been vigilant about condemning human rights violations since 11 September."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says that in some parts of Afghanistan, "corruption and instability are rife." An extreme example of such conditions, it says, is Jalalabad, where "relief officials fear for their property and safety, and their work is repeatedly disrupted." In such conditions, the paper adds, "economic reconstruction and stability [are] inconceivable." Furthermore, the paper says, "locals are beginning to lament the passing of the Taliban, who rose to power on a wave of popular fury at warlord corruption and who suppressed criminals ruthlessly."

The paper says that if the world does not want a new version of the Taliban to rise again, the U.S. and its allies "had better support an international effort to contain this chaos. A contingent of peacekeepers should be sent to protect the aid efforts in the city; otherwise warlords all over the country will get the idea that they can rob food stocks with impunity." The editorial concludes that it is now time for Western leaders -- particularly U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- "to deliver on their rhetoric."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" considers recent calls from U.S. officials and pundits for the Bush administration to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as an extension of its war on terrorists and the states that harbor them. The editorial says that these voices "are justified in wishing to liberate the people of Iraq from a long nightmare. They are also right that [Hussein's] efforts to retain or acquire weapons of mass destruction threaten crimes against humanity on an even greater scale than the atrocities of 11 September."

But, the paper says, "it would be bad timing for the United States to target [the Iraqi leader] before Osama bin Laden's terrorist network has been significantly disabled. And it is important to be lucid about the reasons for toppling [the] regime." "Leaving the bosses of Al- Qaeda atop their terrorist network would be no less of a blunder than the decision [in] March 1991 to allow [Hussein] to crush a popular uprising that otherwise would almost certainly have toppled his regime."

It is also a mistake, the editorial adds, to "confuse the war against bin Laden's terrorism with [America's] unfinished war against [Hussein's] tyranny. Although there have been highly suspicious contacts between Al-Qaeda operatives and top Iraqi intelligence officials, there is yet to be any firm evidence that [Hussein] played a role in bin Laden's terrorist operations."

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