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Western Press Review: Putin's State Of The Nation Address And The 'Other' Mideast War

Prague, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western media today discusses the return to Afghanistan of former King Zahir Shah, an Afghan Marshall Plan, the other -- bloodier -- war in the Middle East, the "myth" of the Soviet threat in the Cold War era, Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the nation, and the ongoing military campaign in Chechnya.


An editorial in the British "The Daily Telegraph" says the return to Afghanistan yesterday of exiled former King Zahir Shah "could prevent the country from sliding back into the chaos of warlordism."

The former king's main task, it says, will be to preside over a Loya Jirga, or grand council, in June, which will establish a transitional government for a two-year period and choose a constitutional commission. Ideally, says the "Telegraph," the ethnic Pashtun former king "will be a symbol of unity in a country where Tajiks, the second-largest ethnic grouping, have disproportionate influence in the interim administration" and where warlords still operate in the provinces with little regard for Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul.

But the "Telegraph" says the immediate need in Afghanistan is for security in the towns and provinces where the influence of the interim administration does not reach. It says, "Unless the government in Kabul can impose its authority on the rest of the country, potential donors will be reluctant to release development funds ..."

Strengthening the government's central authority "requires wider deployment of the International Security Assistance Force," says the editorial. "By throwing its weight behind such a move, Washington can lighten the burden which now rests on the frail shoulders of Afghanistan's last king."


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Markus Wehner discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the nation yesterday, and notes that the Russian leader said "very little" about the ongoing war in Chechnya: "The military operation is over, now comes the period of peaceful reconstruction, was Mr. Putin's assessment."

But Wehner says that, a few hours earlier, "Chechen extremists murdered more than 30 soldiers and policemen in Chechnya, and Russian troops retaliated by killing women and children." Putin announced last year also "that the army was withdrawing from Chechnya, having fulfilled its assignment. But none of the plans to pull out, heralded with much ado, ever came to anything," Wehner says.

"Russia still refuses to negotiate with its adversaries. [The] Kremlin has evidently accepted that it must live with the conflict for decades to come. And the West looks on, helpless to unravel the Chechen tangle in which Islamist terrorism is only one thread."


An editorial in the German "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" also comments on Russian President Putin's annual State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly yesterday. The commentary says this speech comes at a time of continued attacks in Chechnya and reports of strikes among teachers, doctors, and coal miners, protesting arrears in salary payments.

Nevertheless, the paper says, Putin can still rely on the people's support. His leadership enjoys overwhelming backing for radical changes in the executive power structure, as well as in relations between the federal government and the regions. The commentary emphasizes the "clear signals" coming from Russia that it wishes to undertake colossal strides forward in reforming the military, the judiciary, taxation, banks, and state monopolies.

Russia is seeking allies abroad and wishes to play the role of a dependable ally, says the paper. However, it says Putin -- as the lone reformer -- "is an insufficient motor." There is a need to overcome the self-perpetuating mentality and structures and inject the county with a new sense of urgency for reform. That, however, "is an age-old problem in Russia," says the paper.


In "The New York Times," Nicholas Kristof looks at another Middle East war, the civil war in southern Sudan. He says, "The world's attention may be focused elsewhere in the region, but this is by far the Middle East's bloodiest war," as rebels in the south fight against the "smothering rule" of the north.

Writing from Ebel Awlia, Kristof says with temperatures in excess of 37 degrees Celsius, "with children dying as parents fret over which of their sick children they can afford to take to the doctor -- a visit costs 20 [U.S.] cents -- this landscape looks like a vision of hell."

But now, Kristof says, the U.S. administration "is handling this country just right," and its special envoy in Sudan has negotiated a partial cease-fire. Kristof says despite sound bites from the White House "about never negotiating with terrorists, that's what it is doing here, to its immense credit. It's precisely because this administration is willing to talk seriously and even upgrade relations with the terrorist-tainted government in Khartoum that there is some hope of ending the war."

Kristof says there are two lessons to be learned here for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, "even if leaders are as brutal and untrustworthy as Sudan's, it is worth negotiating with them -- because in the real world it often falls to the thugs to become the peace-makers."

The second lesson, he says, is that "there is always hope, for if peace can suddenly glimmer here, it should be able to shine in a holy land as well."


A editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the pledge this week by U.S. President George W. Bush that he would support an international effort "to rebuild Afghanistan on the model of the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II." But Afghanistan is "in dire need of an expanded international security force," which the U.S. administration does not support. The paper says one of the major obstacles to Afghanistan's ability to readily use aid is its lack of security.

"The New York Times" says Afghanistan "will require the kind of long-term commitment of energy and money that rebuilding Europe did." But the editorial remarks that postwar Europe "already had institutions and skilled workers; what it really needed was vast sums of cash. Afghanistan needs money for food and health aid, but it especially needs the kind of sustained care and security that will allow institutions to be built and Afghans trained to run them."


An editorial in the "Financial Times" discusses Russian President Putin's annual State of the Nation speech yesterday, and notes that there was "no direct mention" of Russia's cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. "Instead, the war in Afghanistan was portrayed as a triumph for Russia and its allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States."

The paper says Putin's "carefully constructed broadcast" shows how cautious he is in referring to "the pro-West shift in his foreign policy after 11 September. Mr. Putin recognizes that many ordinary Russians remain suspicious of edging closer to the West."

Western policy makers, it says, "must therefore beware of putting too much pressure on Mr. Putin. Having secured military access to Central Asia, Washington should now be generous in granting Moscow an honorable place at the NATO table."

The "Financial Times" goes on to note that the bulk of Putin's speech was dedicated to the economy, saying Russia "must take full responsibility for its success or failure." While there were few concrete proposals, Putin made general demands "for progress on several fronts, including cutting red tape, reforming the monopolies and overhauling the courts."

The paper suggests that Russia's priorities should be "energy liberalization, banking reform and replacing general subsidies with means-tested benefits for the poor."


In Britain's "The Guardian," commentator Andrew Alexander says the Cold War was "one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time." After World War II, the Soviet Union "was diagnosed as inherently aggressive." It allegedly sought to install communist governments throughout Europe, its army ready and able to conquer Western Europe under Josef Stalin, "who was dedicated to the global triumph of communism." But the West -- principally the U.S. and Britain -- were determined to stand up to this perceived threat, he says.

But this doctrine was "seductive in its simplicity," writes Alexander. The supposed military threat "was wholly implausible." Had war-devastated Russia invaded the West, it would have been "virtually hopeless," not least because of the West's nuclear capability.

"In short," writes Alexander, "there was no Soviet military danger. Stalin was not [a] devout ideologue dedicated to world communism. He was committed, above all else, to retaining power, and ruling Russia by mass terror."

The West adopted an increasingly "belligerent attitude to an imaginary military and political threat from an economically devastated and war-weary Russia," says Alexander. The U.S. made it clear that "Russian interference in countries essential to its safety was evil. But exclusive U.S. domination of its own sphere of influence was righteous."

He asks: "Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because postwar Western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked imagination, intelligence, and understanding? The gloomy answer is yes," he says.


A piece in Belgium's "Le Soir" looks at life in Kabul today, and says while things are slowly returning to what they had been before the Taliban, Afghanistan's needs remain vast.

The paper says already, in the streets of the capital, "just as so many buds in spring, more and more women return to life, made up, in pantsuits or in long skirts. And many others, their burqas floating in the wind, dare to [wear] high heels or fashionable shoes, wedges or fluorescent colors."

The city swarms with activity, writes "Le Soir." "In striking contrast with the gravity that reigned in the time of the Taliban, faces are spread, smiling, the passersby speak, rush, stroll in parks, go to the store or the market."

But the paper goes on to say that things have become very expensive in Kabul -- food and supplies, but also rent. Whole districts of the capital are still uninhabitable, and reconstruction only beginning. The situation is further complicated by the return of thousands of refugees or the displaced.

The paper says that without a real economy -- without factories, companies or even employment -- Afghans will remain behind. The international aid promised is "but a drop in the ocean of needs," writes "Le Soir."

Quick action is necessary, it says, so that after the initial euphoria, "disillusionment does not revive the old devils."

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