Prague, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today looks at the results of Hungary's parliamentary elections over the weekend, allegations that Al-Qaeda affiliates are targeting Iraqi Kurds, and the U.S.-Russian struggle for influence in the Caucasus. Much discussion also continues to center on events in the Middle East, as Israel begins a partial withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.
An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" looks at the results of the first round of Hungary's general elections on 7 April. The Socialists won a narrow victory over Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right Fidesz alliance, and now look likely to form a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats party.
This turn of events has dashed Orban's hopes of becoming the first prime minister to win two terms in office since the fall of communism. The paper says it also "spares Europe from another coalition government of conservatives and the far right." Orban's leadership style has taken on some nationalist tones and has "acquired a shade of authoritarianism. He has been hit with accusations of cronyism and patronage. Heavy-handed interventions -- price controls, national preferences, and even nationalization -- have tainted an otherwise liberal economic policy. Although the economy has performed well, his government has failed to build on the structural reforms bequeathed by the previous governments."
The "Financial Times" says it is now up to the Socialists, assuming that they win in the second round of voting on 21 April, "to get the public finances back in shape, shake up the public sector, and deliver EU membership. If they did not win a clear victory on 7 April, it is because they still suffer from associations with Hungary's communist past. The Socialists must prove they can modernize their party as well as their country."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
In the German "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Matthias Rueb analyzes the results of Hungary's parliamentary elections last on 7 April in which the opposition Socialists, led by Peter Medgyessy, won a narrow victory over the governing center-right coalition of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The final decision on the future government will be made in the second round of elections on 21 April, but Rueb says everything already seems to indicate that the Socialists will be able to form a government with the left-leaning liberals.
Rueb says the Hungarians have remained true to themselves in choosing to make a change. Since the first free elections in 1990, every government has managed to survive its term in office but not win in subsequent elections. This pendulum in preferences, says Rueb, is an indication of the maturity of democratic Hungary. In addition, it attests to the Hungarian people's favor that they do not tolerate arrogance of power, and prefer to compromise when significant social issues are at stake. In this case, a general consensus is desirable, for, in Rueb's words, "privation leads to reconciliation; revenge harms everyone."
This applies even more so, as Hungary is about to take the historic step of joining the EU. It is somewhat of an irony of history that Hungary is to achieve EU membership under the leadership of a reformed wing of the former official Communist Party, he says. But since in a democracy every party builds on the achievements of its predecessors, it is of no consequence under whose leadership this last step is taken. Besides, says Rueb, the Hungarian people have made their contribution as members of the European family of nations for over a thousand years.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An analysis by William Safire in "The New York Times," reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune," discusses reports that 60 Islamic terrorists affiliated with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network are targeting Kurds in northern Iraq at the behest of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Safire says their assignment was "to kill the Kurdish leaders, who Saddam assumes will be allied with the United States in his overthrow," should the U.S. take military action against his regime. Safire likens Saddam's strategy to the assassination of the popular Afghan leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, on 9 September. Both attacks, Safire says, were intended to weaken any opposition forces before U.S. acts against the dominant regime.
Safire asks why the attacks on Kurdish leaders have failed to provoke a stronger response from the U.S. government. He notes the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency initially failed even to notify the National Security Council of the incident. Safire ironically remarks that it is unlikely that even $1 from the now $30 billion defense budget has gone to equip or train "the 70,000 Kurdish fighters who would make up the most dependable indigenous ally in any coalition to overthrow Saddam."
The Kurds cannot be armed and trained overnight, Safire says. Saddam "has begun his offensive -- diplomatic at the United Nations, economic with oil-embargo threats, terrorist to his north. Time is short," he concludes.
In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Peter Muench contrasts the public pledges and actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He says Sharon should be familiar with the difference between words and deeds, as he has repeatedly criticized Arafat for pledging his commitment to peace in English while giving instructions for the intifada in Arabic.
But Muench says it seems the Israeli prime minister has taken Arafat -- his "diabolical enemy" -- as his model as he tries to distract the Knesset (Israeli parliament) with prattle about peace while waging war. He has even proposed an Israeli-Palestinian summit without any preconditions. "A fine idea," Muench remarks, "but unfortunately this suggestion comes at the wrong time and from the wrong person."
Muench says any Arab leader who seeks to avoid provoking a popular revolt or suffering isolation from the Arab community would not want to meet with Sharon while the latter's army is waging war against the Palestinians. Muench says the Israeli premier has exerted "excessive force" and no proposal for negotiations can now prevail over the thunder in Ramallah and Bethlehem. He says Sharon has merely timed his proposals to coincide with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's arrival in the Middle East. But Muench says Sharon's efforts to curry U.S. favor will not be successful, considering the realities of the current situation.
In the British "The Guardian," the daily's European editor Ian Black says the EU is having trouble formulating a clear plan of action for the crisis in the Middle East. He says the EU's "unwieldy structures and tortuous divisions of power do not make for coherent foreign policies." In addition, mutual distrust between Israel and Europe remains "intense," as the European Commission remains the world's largest donor to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Black says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delivered a "crude rebuff" to a high-ranking EU delegation dispatched to the region last week, by not allowing the delegates to meet with Arafat. To "add insult to injury," Black says, Sharon allowed U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to speak with the Palestinian leader a few days later. "The message was unmistakable: Israel will allow U.S. involvement, up to a point," but Europe should not bother.
Determining what form EU involvement in the current crisis might take "remains difficult," Black says, "because of nuanced but significant differences between member states." The EU's next move will be determined in Madrid tomorrow, as representatives from the U.S., Russia, the EU, and the UN meet to discuss the escalating crisis. Black says "it is already clear" that only the U.S. can help find a solution to the crisis. This, he says, "is a sobering reminder that to perform competently on the world stage, Europe has a lot of catching up to do."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" says the announcement last night that Israel will withdraw from two Palestinian cities was a welcome development, although it remains "far from clear" whether this will precede a full withdrawal. U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly called for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has, thus far, refused. The editorial says this "is an insult to Mr. Bush and the United States," Israel's "closest ally."
Sharon is falling "into old patterns," it adds. He "is doing his country no good by failing to heed the sincere and urgent request" from America. The paper writes: "It is increasingly clear that the costs to broader Israeli interests far outweigh whatever short-term security benefits this military operation may be yielding. Mr. Sharon's actions may be netting some terrorists [but] they are inflaming the fury of thousands more Palestinians and millions of Arabs," says the editorial.
While Israel's declared objective is to dismantle the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, "Israeli gunfire, curfews and military checkpoints have abused the lives, livelihood, and dignity of the civilian population. [The] refusal of Israeli forces to let wounded Palestinians be removed to hospitals is inexplicable."
"The New York Times" concludes, "A wise Israeli leader would use the Bush initiative to show that he stands ready to talk peace with any responsible partner."
An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" says recent demonstrations in France over the Middle East conflict "are a sign of the liveliness of democratic debate" in the country. But they are accompanied by other signs that risk provoking more violence, it says. That the Jewish community wishes to express its solidarity with the people of Israel is perfectly understandable, says "Le Monde." At the same time, the Muslim community is rightly concerned about renewed Israeli offensives against the Palestinians, and many -- Muslim or not -- wish to lend their support to the Palestinian cause and condemn the policies of the Israeli prime minister. But there are reasons for concern "when these gestures of solidarity are accompanied by acts of intolerance and brutality," says the paper. The aggression that tarnished the 7 April demonstrations in Paris is unacceptable, it says.
"Le Monde" says it would be misguided to imagine that all Jews unconditionally support the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, without regard for the diversity of opinions within the Jewish community. Similarly, it is equally mistaken to imagine that French Muslims necessarily support the methods of Palestinian extremists. "Le Monde" suggests striving for a "united demonstration for peace," which would allow the demonstrators "to set an example of tolerance and brotherhood." To find a solution to the crisis, it says, it is necessary to bring together -- and not further divide -- the communities involved.
In "Eurasia View," CIS political-affairs analyst Igor Torbakov says the recent increase in U.S. strategic interest in the Caucasus "has alarmed Russian policy planners." He says Moscow "is keen to take steps to shore up its eroding position in the region. However, Russian officials have limited options with which to counter U.S. moves while at the same time maintaining cordial relations with Washington."
Torbakov says the most prominent U.S. moves in the region are the decision to send military advisers to Georgia and the announcement on the lifting of the arms embargo on Armenia and Azerbaijan. "Both actions have the potential to tilt the military establishments of all three Caucasus nations away from Russia and towards NATO," he writes. Moscow wants guarantees that the expanding military cooperation between the U.S. and the Caucasus states will not lead to a long-term U.S. military presence in the region.
Torbakov says Russian strategists are concerned that Washington might also "promote the resolution of the region's numerous conflicts -- including Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia -- and thus introduce stability and ensure security in the troubled former borderland of the Russian empire. Under such a scenario, the United States would emerge as the principal guarantor of peace and prosperity in the Caucasus," effectively marginalizing Russian involvement in the region.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)