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Western Press Review: Oil As 'Political Weapon,' Putin's Russia, And The Mideast

Prague, 10 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today remains focused on the Middle East, ahead of the much-anticipated arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in the region. Other topics include Iraq's recent move to use oil production as a "political weapon," President Vladimir Putin's Russia, and the situation in Afghanistan.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger discusses the Middle East peace proposal put forth by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Frankenberger says Fischer's plan makes some sense. The United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations would "guarantee the peaceful coexistence of Israel and a Palestinian state. His plan is for this four-party alliance to guarantee that Israelis and Palestinians comply with their eventual obligations and to provide a 'security component' for this purpose." But Frankenberger says this "is asking a lot: guarantees that would have to be implemented if necessary; troops that would have to be in a position to stop the old terror and revenge reflexes."

Frankenberger says few nations are either willing or able to provide a real guarantee of security to the two sides. Only the United States might actually be able to do so, he says. The threat of politically or economically isolating any state that continues to support the Palestinian brand of terrorism is logical, but also explosive, he says.

Frankenberger goes on to say that other parts of the plan "presume a desire for peace -- if only from exhaustion -- that no longer exists." He concludes that Foreign Minister Fischer's proposal "will presumably also be quashed by the cynical self-interests that dominate the Middle East."


In a contribution to "The Washington Post," former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin says that as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in the Mideast this week, he is arriving in a situation that is "much graver" than during his previous visit to the region last June. Beilin says the plan proposed by CIA Director George Tenet last year is no longer applicable. The Tenet plan "addresses a very different situation: a time when the intifada was an uprising of the masses rather than an outright war. It contains obligations that both parties are no longer able to fulfill, e.g., Israel is obligated not to attack any of Arafat's facilities, whereas in fact these facilities have already been destroyed."

Bielen writes that any new agreement "must address current concerns and be signed by those able to uphold their commitments. Arafat must commit to keep the monopoly of power within the restored Palestinian Authority, and to withdraw his support of the continuing existence of armed militias. Israel must also, naturally, let Arafat out of the ridiculous 'isolation' it has forced him into in his Ramallah chambers, an act that merely served to strengthen his position worldwide. It must also leave the Palestinian territories, and refrain from initiated violence, such as targeted killings."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" characterizes as "futile" Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's move to halt oil exports for 30 days to protest Israel's actions in the West Bank. The editorial says the Iraqi move "will neither help the Palestinians nor hurt the global economy." The paper notes that the world price of oil has been rising, "but this is quite apart from anything Saddam [Hussein] is doing."

Iraq accounts for only 4 percent of world production. An embargo would have detrimental effects "only if the rest of OPEC [the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] agreed to join it. But this is as unlikely as Saddam's making peace with Israel." The paper continues, "Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest OPEC player, and it needs every petrodollar it can earn. The Kuwaitis have also rejected an embargo."

The paper goes on to say that it is widely expected that Saudi Arabia will "increase their production to compensate for any Iraq shortfall. The Saudis earlier felt the need to cut their production to lift the price, despite their revenue needs, and so they might enjoy making up for that loss now."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" discusses the potential effects of Iraq's decision to temporarily stop oil exports to protest events in the Middle East. This move "was not in itself a particularly serious blow," it says. Iraq "has been limited in the scale of its exports, for UN economic sanctions allow it to sell only limited qualities to pay for essential imports."

But the paper says nevertheless, oil will probably remain relatively expensive in the next few months because of increased demand and the production caps already in place. This price increase, it says, should serve "as a useful warning. We have created an oil-driven global economy, in a world where 70 percent of known reserves are in its most politically fragile region. That is not very bright. The only way we can, in the short and medium term, dig our way out of this dangerous situation is to become better at energy conservation. That means harnessing the power of the market to wean us off oil."

"A reasonably high oil price is therefore a blessing in disguise," the editorial concludes. "If oil is too cheap, we will waste it. It is a welcome relief to have the market pushing in the right direction rather than the wrong."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Peter Muench also considers Iraq's announced halt on oil exports. Muench says that Iraq has taken more drastic steps than even Iran, which was also ready to cease oil deliveries but only if this were a common measure agreed upon by all Arab states. But Muench says using oil as a weapon is a dream of the past, from 1973 when the world was filled with anxiety at the prospect of export cuts. But today, "a different game is at stake, and the old rules are no longer valid," he says, since the world is no longer dependent on Iraqi oil and the other oil-producing countries in the Middle East are not ready to join Baghdad. Nevertheless, this wake-up call from Saddam Hussein should be taken seriously, Muench writes, since this uproar indicates how quickly neglecting policy in the Middle East can provoke radical responses.


An analysis in "Jane's Foreign Report" looks at the high public approval rating of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although some Russians have misgivings about his Western-oriented foreign policy, it says, any earlier doubts surrounding his reformist policies have been dispelled. Putin's dismissal of Central Bank Governor Viktor Gerashchenko for his "tolerance of hyper-inflation" and continuing state subsidies to loss-making enterprises has allowed banking reforms to proceed, while the president's plans to reform oil and gas giant Gazprom are movements toward creating a competitive gas market for the country. However, "Jane's" says "a huge amount remains to be done in the following areas: corporate governance; capital market regulations; juridical reform; further reductions in debt/debt service obligations; money and banking; further tax reform [and] the reform of the social security, health and education systems."

The report says Putin "must move forward now in combating red tape and corruption, which inhibit economic growth. He must diminish the power of the state, overwhelming in the Soviet era and still pervasive. Most importantly, he has to ensure that there is a fair distribution of wealth. If the prevailing low inflation and interest rates continue," "Jane's" concludes, Russia will be able to create a stable business environment. "The opportunity is there," it says.


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" by Jochem Siemens says German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has committed a blunder by introducing his forgetfulness of history into his election campaign, and thereby causing immense political damage. On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Schroeder discussed sending German troops to join an international peacekeeping force in the Middle East. Siemens reminds readers that Germany was responsible for the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews. After World War II, a solution was sought for the problem of Jewish refugees from Europe in establishing Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Siemens says thus, in a sense, the current conflict in the Middle East has its roots in Germany -- and therefore Berlin cannot take up a military role in the Middle East. But he adds that this does not necessarily mean that the German government does not have a right to question and criticize Israeli politics and, above all, to work in concert with the EU on the issue. Siemens concludes that the EU, for all its lack of confidence, is nevertheless in a position to play a constructive role in what he calls the undeclared war between Israel and Palestine.


In "The New York Times," Afghan affairs analyst Barnett Rubin of New York University's Center on International Cooperation says the prospect of convening a loya jirga, or grand council, to determine the political future of Afghanistan is "shaking up an already shaky structure [and] further complicates the security crisis."

He says Afghanistan's leaders "have clearly stated what they need: expansion of the International Security Assistance Force from Kabul to the major provincial centers and quick disbursement of aid to resuscitate the administration and provide alternative livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of armed men." Reconstruction aid, says Rubin, is currently "trapped in an incomprehensible bureaucracy." He says the West's insistence on training Afghan national forces rather than using international forces to maintain security "is disingenuous. An expanded international force is needed precisely to provide security during the reorganization of [a] smaller, more disciplined force that will maintain security."

Rubin says a recent UN Security Council resolution "tried to replace expansion of the international force with economic incentives by promising that reconstruction aid will be provided only to local leaders who protect human rights and ensure security." But substituting assistance for police and military action will fail, he predicts, "Incentives work best when combined with sanctions. For now, local commanders still feel they can protect their interests best with guns."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says that in order to rehabilitate Afghanistan, the West must not only foster inter-ethnic reconciliation and representative self-government within the country but also ensure that the influence of neighboring Iran and Pakistan is mitigated.

The editorial says Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has made convincing overtures toward reconciliation with Afghanistan through his words and his offers of financial aid. But in contrast, it says, "the clerical ultras who rule Iran do not want Afghanistan to abjure their example of a state subjected to the misrule of religious authorities. And they are anxious to avoid having an Afghanistan under American influence on their eastern border. Washington can try to reduce the risk of Iranian meddling by making it clear there is no U.S. effort to encircle or attack the Islamic Republic of Iran." But the editorial says that ultimately, it will be "up to an Afghan government to keep the Iranian mullahs at a safe distance."

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