Prague, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today looks at the French public's ennui with respect to its presidential elections, Pakistan's own war against terrorism, NATO enlargement, and the dangers of exposing atrocities in Chechnya. Other topics include Georgia's new strategic cooperation with the U.S. and the Middle East.
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Gunther Nonnenmacher says the French presidential campaign "has so far failed to arouse any great excitement. Even though [the two main] candidates have taken to launching personal attacks to shake the public out of their torpor, the prevailing feeling is one of boredom."
Nonnenmacher says this is because French voters are choosing between two men -- incumbent President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- "who have jointly run the country over the last five years." This governmental cooperation between the rightist Chirac and left-wing coalition leader Jospin, something the French call "cohabitation," has "blurred in people's minds just who in the French republic is responsible for what."
Nonnenmacher says the French cannot see any great difference between the two candidates, and their recently published platforms confirm only that both are firmly rooted in the political center. "On questions [of] internal security or economic and social policy, the differences between the two programs lie only in emphasis and nuance, not in principle," he says.
On the issue of the European Union, Nonnenmacher says neither Chirac nor Jospin is an enthusiast, "but they are both rational Europeans; both will defend French interests, in farm policy for example, to the bitter end." Nonnenmacher concludes that given France's lackluster political life, "It would be a surprise [if] the new vigor that Europe needs came from Paris, of all places."
THE BOSTON GLOBE:
An editorial in "The Boston Globe" calls upon the U.S. to do more to help Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in his attempts to quell terrorist activity within his country. In light of 17 March's grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad, the paper says whichever terrorist group was responsible, "an underlying political reality ought to be clear [to] Washington: Musharraf has embarked on a fight to the death with several fanatical terrorist organizations, many of which previously enjoyed the support of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence."
The paper says the challenges to Musharraf's government are "multiplied many times over by the demands Washington made of him to help in the U.S. campaign next door in Afghanistan. [As] a consequence of Musharraf's cooperation with the Americans -- his banning of terrorist groups in Pakistan, his arrests of their leaders, and his dramatic purging of Islamist sympathizers from Pakistani intelligence -- he is a marked man confronting diffuse threats."
The paper says the war against terrorism "would be lost utterly if the United States succeeded in ejecting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan but failed to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan out of the clutches of Islamist extremists. Musharraf needs not only political backing but money to pay and equip woefully neglected police forces," the paper says, adding that this would be "a cheap price to pay for a crucial victory."
In Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, columnist Ian Traynor looks at the complications stemming from the new strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. Traynor says the Georgian choice "between dependence on and domination by Moscow versus support from Washington is being played out." For years, he says, "Russia and America have been sparring over the strategic territory of Georgia." But the attacks of 11 September have shifted the balance, and now the Americans are "pushing on an open door in Georgia while the Russians are shut out." The U.S. recently dispatched 200 military advisers to the Pankisi Gorge region, officially to train Georgian troops on how to deal with the region's deteriorating security situation.
But Traynor says some observers are concerned that the Georgian military will use its U.S. training to reassert its control over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, which is de facto independent and supported by a Russian presence. "Terrorism has become the catchall excuse for all sides in this tense contest," says Traynor. The Georgians are happy to let the Americans deal with terrorists that the U.S. suspects are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge region. But Georgia may later claim to be pursuing its own terrorists in Abkhazia.
Traynor cites Western diplomats as saying the Abkhaz conflict cannot be settled militarily, and that "it would be disastrous if the Georgian troops now being trained by the Americans ended up fighting Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," analyst Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation discusses strategic reasons for NATO enlargement to include the Vilnius 10 countries -- comprising the nine NATO aspirant countries and Croatia, stretching from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Socor says that while fulfillment of the rigorous military, political and economic criteria laid out in their respective Membership Action Plans remains the basis for evaluating national candidacies, strategic location is taking on greater importance. He says, "September 11 and its lessons have added to the urgency of treating this space as an indivisible unit and bringing it into the Western alliance system."
The inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania, says Socor, would provide NATO with access to the Black Sea and the South Caucasus and would promote strategic stability and development in the South Caucasus-Caspian area. He notes another potential benefit is that the Black Sea is currently the main transit route for Caspian oil. "Another Black Sea country, Ukraine, provides an indispensable air corridor for the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition operating in Central Asia and Afghanistan."
Socor says each of the countries seeking a membership invitation this year "would bring with it a net advantage to the alliance in terms of location, political resolve, allied discipline and willingness to bear their share of military burdens. This they are already demonstrating through their participation in NATO exercises and allied operations in war-torn places, from the Balkans to Afghanistan."
An editorial in "The Times" of Britain looks at reporting on rights abuses in Chechnya, in light of the work of Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya. The paper says her "searing accounts of the corruption, intimidation and brutalities perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Chechnya are now almost the only source of information about what is really happening there." Politkovskaya has exposed "what the military command is desperate to hide: [the] collusion of Russian officials in the kidnappings and protection rackets, the extortion of bribes from civilians, targeting of their houses and property and the indiscriminate killings." But her reporting "has been at huge personal risk," says the paper. "She has been harassed, arrested, threatened with rape and torture and forced to flee Russia."
"The Times" goes on to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved much that is positive in Russia. But it says this has come "at some cost in press and individual freedom. There is little tolerance of dissent, and old Soviet habits are beginning to reassert themselves: self-censorship by journalists [and] official pressure on those who will not toe the line."
"The Times" says most Russians "care little about press freedom. For them it is more important that pensions are paid, corruption curbed and crime reduced. Most do not think much about what is happening in Chechnya." But, the paper says, "persecuting those who report the truth is reprehensible."
In "Die Welt," Gerhard Gauck discusses the conciliatory approach Poland is taking with regard to the murkier side of its history with Germany -- the expulsion of Germans from Poland after World War II. Gauck says diplomatic speech rarely includes apologies or expressions of regret. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, however, seems to want to break this mold with regard to his German neighbors. Recently he has been speaking of making "gestures" toward Germans who were expelled. He is himself the son of an expellee. The president says "we must speak about these matters openly, while ignoring property issues."
Commentator Gauck says the Czechs should follow this example in dealing with their own history, as their controversial Benes decrees similarly drove out the minority German population from the Czech lands in 1945.
The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" carries a commentary by Eva Karnofsky discussing the poverty in Latin America in light of U.S. President George W. Bush's upcoming visit to Peru. The visit comes in the wake of a car bomb attack near the U.S. Embassy in Lima, possibly intended by Shining Path guerrillas to discredit the Peruvian leader before President Bush's arrival. Karnofsky says that this drastic and horrible attack, aimed at expressing hatred for their neighbor to the north, does not get the approval of the Peruvian people, who are sick of the Shining Path guerrillas. Contrary to their intentions, she says, this attack "will make Bush's visit smoother." The Peruvians will be grateful if Bush supports President Alejandro Toledo in combating such terrorism.
However, Karnofsky points out, Latin America as a whole regards the U.S. with mixed feelings. It fears the exploitation of its cheap labor and U.S. reluctance to open its markets to Latin America products. Unemployment and poverty are bound to find an outlet in terrorism, she says. Terrorism will not be prevented unless jobs are created and poverty is alleviated.
In France's daily "Le Monde," Philippe Grangereau writes from Kabul of the Norouz -- or New Year's -- celebrations that took place yesterday in Afghanistan. The celebrations were the first of their kind since the Taliban came to power in 1996. Grangereau says "thousands of Kabulis promenaded through the streets of the city dressed in their most beautiful clothes yesterday, to celebrate this holiday that the Taliban had banned for being 'un-Islamic.'" He says within the famous stadium in which the Taliban once held public executions, 40,000 people gathered for the festivities, of which men made up 95 percent -- the women having been relegated to a small observation stand.
Grangereau cites one of the female spectators, a 24-year-old doctor, as proudly saying she burned her head-to-toe burqa two weeks ago. The young doctor acknowledged that few women seem ready to follow her example, but she added that things are improving. Grangereau goes on to note that at the celebrations, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai optimistically announced "the advent of a brilliant future" in Afghanistan.
The lead article in this week's "The Economist" magazine looks at America's relations with the Arab world. The magazine says that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to receive a unanimous message from the Arab world on his trip to the region: that it does not favor and will not support a U.S. attempt to unseat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. America needs to rethink its dealings with the Arab world, says the magazine. It poses the question: Why shouldn't America make the case for Arab democracy? "The magazine writes: "Western policy towards the Arabs has long been governed by realpolitik, [preferring] stability to uncertain experiments with democracy" in a region so rich with oil. But perhaps some in the Arab world do want a chance to choose their own leaders, it suggests.
The magazine says theories based on religion, history, or tradition that suggest Arab ways are unsuited to secular democracy "are no excuse for failing to try." "The Economist" writes: "Those who consider Arab democracy a fantasy should ask how long the existing system can last. [In] single-party Syria, the appetite for open politics is keen. In multi-party Egypt, voters are incensed by the fact that opposition parties are tolerated but prevented from winning elections. [When] offered a real chance to vote, Arabs have accepted with gusto. The obstacle has not been religion or tradition, but [the] refusal of those in power to accept the people's verdict."
(Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)