Prague, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today covers Ukraine's Westward shift in the wake of last week's parliamentary elections, Azerbaijani-Iranian tensions, the perils of the U.S. power, NATO expansion, the recent rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France, and events in Afghanistan. Discussion also focuses on the Middle East, as the Israeli Army continues its incursions into West Bank territories.
In the regional daily "Eurasia View," Baku-based journalist Nailia Sohbetqizi looks at tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. She says the recent visit to Baku of a leading Azeri-Iranian dissident "helped stoke a separatism debate that is hampering a rapprochement" between the two countries. She adds: "Ongoing bilateral tension [is] complicating efforts to resolve regional issues, in particular the division of the Caspian Sea."
She notes that Mahmudali Cohraqani, a professor at Iran's Tabriz University and a leading advocate of Azeri rights in Iran, was recently received in Azerbaijan by opposition politicians. The professor claims there are 30 million ethnic Azeris in Iran -- 45 percent of the country's total population -- who suffer systematic discrimination. Although he did not meet with Azerbaijani officials, Sohbetqizi remarks that Cohraqani's visit "was sure to rankle Tehran."
But Sohbetqizi says the issue of ethnic-Azeri rights "is not the only source of tension between Baku and Tehran" and that the two countries are also dueling over their respective shares of the Caspian Sea. The inability to reach an agreement, she adds, is, in turn, slowing efforts to develop the region's abundant oil and gas resources.
An editorial in the "Washington Times" today discusses the 31 March parliamentary elections in Ukraine, in which the Our Ukraine opposition bloc of Viktor Yushchenko came out ahead, followed closely by the Communist Party, while presidential supporters finished farther afield.
The paper says Yushchenko will "strive to align his country with the West," whereas President Leonid Kuchma has tried to keep Ukraine tied to its Soviet-era past by allowing the Kremlin to maintain its influence in the country. It adds that, although Yushchenko's party did not win a majority of votes, he has "clearly established himself as Ukraine's favored politician, and he will have the ability to forge alliances with other parties to counter Mr. Kuchma's corrupting power."
The "Washington Times" goes on to say that the rise of Yushchenko's opposition "comes at a critical time, since Mr. Kuchma's party is jockeying to change the constitution to allow the president to run for a third term. The ruling party clearly recognizes how dangerous an alliance of 'democratic forces' could be for the government's autocratic style." The editorial adds that, "Although Mr. Yushchenko's victory will only temper Mr. Kuchma's power, it does send the president a cautionary message. Since Mr. Yushchenko has proved to be the country's favorite, his prospects for success in the 2004 presidential election have improved."
In today's British daily "The Guardian," author and columnist Timothy Garton Ash discusses the global reach of U.S. influence and says that America "has too much power for anyone's good, including its own." He observes that in the current geopolitical climate, U.S. policy is provoking much concern. He says that if the United States were to begin military operations in Iraq while also supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's actions in the West Bank against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, "this could unite the Islamic world against the West while dividing Europe from America, with disastrous consequences for years to come."
Ash goes on to say that in economic power, "[America's] only rival is Europe. In military power it has no rival. Its military expenditure is greater than that of the next eight largest military powers combined," he notes.
"Who, then, should check and complement American power?" he asks. He suggests that international organizations such as the United Nations should do so, as well as transnational nongovernmental organizations. "But that's not enough," says Ash. Europe should also step in to balance U.S. influence, he writes, adding: "Europe as an economic equal to the United States and Europe as a close-knit group of states with long diplomatic and military experience. Not Europe seeing itself as a rival superpower to the U.S., but Europe as America's most important partner in a world community of liberal democracies."
"Sueddeutsche Zeitung" discusses the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents in France. In the last week, fire has destroyed a synagogue in Marseilles and partially destroyed a synagogue in the eastern French city of Strasbourg. The editorial says that there seems to be no end in sight to these repeated attacks on Jewish targets. And hardly a day passes without new reports of violence.
The paper writes: "Much would be gained if Jews and Muslims would accept that their opinions differ" on the Mideast conflict. Who would blame a young Frenchman of Arab origin defending his fellow believers in Ramallah or Bethlehem, the paper asks. And if a French Jew does not see Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as working for a Palestinian state but as a terrorist, he also has reasons for thinking this way, says the paper.
But both peoples, it adds, should be aware that first and foremost they are French. The writer cites the reformed Grand Mufti, Soheib Bencheikh of Marseilles, who says that in the past Jews and Arabs have proven that they are capable of living in harmony. In spite of the understandable emotions of some youths, the paper says, "these people must learn that they can only achieve dignity if they give reason a chance."
In the French daily "Le Monde," Jean-Marie Colombani says that beyond the bloodbath of the Middle East and the inflamed passions of the two peoples, it is important to remember that any end to this suicidal struggle must follow fundamental principles. Two states are needed, Israel and Palestine, the border and coexistence of which should be secured. Any peace process should restart what was achieved at Oslo and Camp David. And international law, while constantly invoked, should finally be applied.
Colombani says the aim of the Palestinian intifada had been to force Israel into a retreat from the territories, much as it was forced to retreat from south Lebanon. But he says it has actually only facilitated the victory of the more hard-line political right in Israel.
On the other side of the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's increasing offensives have also moved many Palestinians to a more hard-line stance. Sharon's policies -- which Colombani calls "counterproductive" and lacking in "any political perspective" -- have locked his government into a political trap. The ongoing siege of Ramallah has allowed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to win the battle for public opinion, as the UN and the world are now demanding an Israeli retreat from the territories. Sharon must first stop his offensive before one can demand anything of Arafat, Colombani says.
An editorial in "Die Welt" by Torsten Krauel comments on the lack of a clear U.S. policy on the Middle East. Krauel says that the "U.S. political helplessness is very disquieting." President George W. Bush's words "fail to express his aims clearly, which betrays his predicament." And yet, Krauel says, America is the only country that can exert its influence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He says the entire idea of the anti-terrorist war hangs in the balance if this influence is not exploited. The longer the Arafat camp issues images worldwide of their apparently defenseless Nobel-peace-prize-winning leader in Sharon's stranglehold, the more potent becomes the impression that Israel is the terrorist culprit.
Krauel says if Bush lets this conflict spin out of control, he will be bringing his own severe defeat upon himself. It is up to America to find a solution quickly, Krauel says. Bush must support a new peace process and should also send the message that he is willing to exert the same kind of pressure as when he was dealing with Belgrade. In Krauel's opinion, most of the world would be on his side in this endeavor.
In Britain's "The Guardian," columnist Kate Connolly says NATO candidate countries are realizing that they have a better chance of being asked to join the alliance at its November summit if they present a united front. Since 11 September, she says, analysts have stressed the importance of bringing in as many new NATO partners as possible this fall. As a result, applicant countries have been attempting to portray themselves as "the best, the biggest, the most reformed, the least corrupt" in their region.
This has done little for harmony in relations, she says. Only the Baltics -- Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania -- have "succeeded in forming a regional alliance to lobby the West," Connolly writes. As a result, they "can be almost certain" of receiving a NATO invitation.
Bulgaria and Romania have also come to the belated conclusion that "together they can present a stronger case for joining," she says. It is generally agreed that their membership is key to regional stability -- something Connolly says is "not to be taken lightly after the recent wars in the Balkans." Sofia and Bucharest are additionally promising that their "refurbished airstrips and ports can be used for future campaigns, including strikes against Iraq." Two hundred U.S. soldiers are already based at a Bulgarian military airport. Connolly remarks that the two candidate countries "are only too glad" to support U.S. military efforts in their bid to gain NATO membership.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:
An editorial in the British "The Daily Telegraph" says the first 600 recruits of the new multiethnic Afghan army mark "the first step in building a broadly based indigenous force for a country still riven by ethnic rivalry." But it goes on to note that the influence of the interim government of Hamid Karzai, based in Kabul, still does not extend far beyond the capital. The editorial says suggestions that the International Security Assistance Force should be expanded from its present mandate to become a presence in all the main towns "have been blocked by the Americans. Local warlords, backed by Iran and Russia, are thus able largely to ignore Kabul."
The Afghan government's weakness is compounded by the fact that it is "living from hand to mouth," the paper says. The $4.5 billion pledged at the Tokyo donors' conference in January has not yet been allocated, which prevents Karzai from extending his influence beyond Kabul. The paper writes: "The concentration of ISAF in the capital and [Karzai's] shortage of funds means he can do little to curb the autonomy of the likes of [warlords Abdulrashid] Dostum and Ismail Khan."
The paper concludes that Afghanistan "is beginning to put itself together. But the position of Mr. Karzai, his authority restricted by lack of funds and military clout, remains precarious. The allies have not matched ISAF's excellent day-to-day performance with a sense of strategic direction as to the future of Afghanistan."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)