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Western Press Review: Tensions Mount In South Asia, Bush Heads To Europe

By Daisy Sindelar/Grant Podelco

Prague, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A number of commentaries in the Western press today look at mounting tensions in South Asia, as nuclear powers Pakistan and India shows signs of preparing to go to war over the disputed state of Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani troops for the past six days have been exchanging heavy mortar and artillery fire across the cease-fire line dividing Kashmir. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who is preparing an emergency mission to the region, has called the rising violence a "crisis the world cannot ignore." Other pieces in today's press review look at the arrival in Europe of U.S. President George W. Bush en route to his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today looks at the mounting India-Pakistan tensions and says, "The United States needs to move quickly to persuade the two sides to pull back from what could slip into a nuclear confrontation." The Bush administration, it adds, has been too slow in pressing the two countries to take steps to reduce the tensions, much as the U.S. and Soviet Union did during the Cold War.

Looking to the two leaders directly involved in the conflict, the paper says there is blame on both sides. "General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's leader, took courageous measures last year against Islamic militants. He helped oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and demanded a shutdown of militants' operations on Pakistani soil. But of the 2,000 suspected militants arrested some months ago, most appear to have been released."

For its part, the paper adds, "India was quick to mobilize for a full-scale war against Pakistan last winter, even though there was never any evidence of a threat of a Pakistani invasion. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has also erred by increasing military pressure to a level where it may be difficult for India to back out of starting a war."

If such thinking is allowed to settle in New Delhi, the editorial concludes, "the consequences will be catastrophic."


Commentator Luke Harding writes in Britain's "The Guardian," "The prospect of a conflict between the world's two newest nuclear powers has appalled London and Washington." But the anticipated intervention of Western officials ranging from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to EU Commissioner Chris Patten, he says, is "too little, too late." He adds, "In recent years, the West has shown scant interest in Kashmir, where about 50,000 militants, civilians, and soldiers have died since the valley's Muslims launched a revolt against Indian rule in 1990."

What can explain such negligence? Harding points to the war on terrorism, writing that since 11 September, the U.S. and Britain have struck up what he calls a "shamelessly expedient friendship with Pakistan's suave military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf." India, he continues, sees Musharraf as duping the international community by promising to rein in terrorists while privately encouraging violent extremists in Kashmir.

"Since joining the coalition against terrorism, General Musharraf has found himself caught between a cause that goes to the heart of Pakistan's Muslim identity and his desire for respectability among his new Western friends." This, Harding adds, "has been a difficult tightrope to walk and Musharraf, the most charmingly dexterous of dictators, is falling off. The situation is as dangerous as at any time since 1971, when India and Pakistan last went to war."

What can be done? First, Harding advises, the West should urge Musharraf to soften his aggressive stance on Kashmir or revoke the loans given last year as a reward for helping to oust the Taliban. Britain, he adds, can also pressure India to adopt a more "creative" response to the Kashmir problem -- possibly through political reform, development, or "meaningful" autonomy. As a first step, he writes, "the West must ensure that September's elections in Jammu and Kashmir are free and fair and not, as on previous occasions, rigged by New Delhi."


A news analysis in Britain's "The Times" by its diplomatic editor, Richard Beeston, looks at what the British government says is the "very real" possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Beeston says many in the British government believe the situation is so tense that just one provocation could trigger catastrophe. Yesterday's murder of a prominent Kashmir separatist leader only plunged the region deeper into trouble.

Beeston quotes senior British officials as outlining a "plausible doomsday scenario" involving the use of atomic weapons. "In response to a terrorist attack, Indian troops would retaliate against Pakistan," Beeston writes. "The Pakistanis, who are considered better troops, would beat off the initial offensive. But the Indians would then use their superiority in conventional forces to overwhelm the Pakistanis. In turn Islamabad would use its weapon of last resort: a nuclear device. India would survive the strike and hit back with its own atomic weapons."

The first priority of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as he heads to the region, Beeston says, will be to ease India's anger in the aftermath of last week's massacre of 34 people by Islamic militants near Jammu. He also will tell Pakistan that it must do more to rein in terror groups responsible for cross-border attacks into India. Straw and British diplomats are expected to try to build security ties between Islamabad and Delhi that would prevent the two accidentally going to war.

Straw's visit will follow similar missions by the European Union and United States. Beeston says this diplomatic offensive is seen as critical before the Indian government decides how to respond to last week's massacre. He quotes a senior British diplomat, who ominously says: "It is very important that we keep the foreign pressure on the two sides at this critical point. The forces are mobilized. With a click of the finger they could go."


Simon Tisdall, writing in Britain's "The Guardian," looks at the strains in the trans-Atlantic relationship ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush's arrival in Europe today and says the troubles are not a matter of U.S. strength, but of European weakness.

Tisdall writes: "[Bush's] belief that he is doing what is right for America and the world will not change. Whatever else it does, therefore, [his] continental sweep will give Europe's political classes another reminder of their own relative impotence." European leaders, he adds, "lacking a clear alternative vision, and divided as ever," are at a loss for how to proceed.

Tisdall offers examples, writing: "Under Bush's direction, the U.S.-led NATO alliance will launch an expansion into Central and Eastern Europe at its autumn summit in Prague. In contrast, the EU's efforts at enlargement remain complex and uncertain." He adds: "The advent of Vladimir Putin as Russia's modernizing leader was initially seen as a great opportunity for Europe. Yet while the row over atrocities in Chechnya diverted attention, Mr. Bush stepped in to forge a personal and strategic alliance with America's former arch foe. [Europe's] attempts to forge a common security and defense policy, meanwhile, languish as its defense spending falls in real terms, while U.S. military and technological capabilities expand."

Europe is not wrong about its stance on many of the issues dividing it from the U.S., Tisdall writes, citing the Kyoto climate control treaty and the International Criminal Court as examples. But "by reason of its own political and institutional weakness," he says, "Europe is losing the argument."


In light of U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Berlin today, an editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" questions whether Germany is a sufficiently devoted ally of the United States.

The federal government is taking great pains to stress the solid basis of the German-U.S. relationship, describing America as "a lasting, dependable partner." This is despite what the "FAZ" calls the "inflammable resentment" likely to be expressed by the tens of thousands of anti-U.S. demonstrators expected to hit the streets of Berlin today, ranging from environmentalists to members of the Senate.

German politicians are worried that ugly anti-American images might damage German interests and could "fall on fertile feelings of displeasure in America." For just as Europeans regard American foreign policy attitudes as simplistic, some Americans are drawing the conclusion that Europe is irrelevant.

The paper says these anti-U.S. attitudes do not reflect reality in Germany, at least not entirely. But they do highlight some disappointments with U.S. policies. In other words, the "FAZ" concludes, "solidarity is not unlimited" and "Germany's apparent devotion to the U.S. cannot be regarded as a foregone conclusion."


In a commentary in Britain's "Financial Times," columnist Robert Cottrell says the main challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin at this week's summit in Moscow with U.S. President George W. Bush will come after all the pomp and ceremonies are over.

"Will the summit have done enough to reassure Mr. Putin himself, and to persuade the skeptics around him, that the boldly pro-Western foreign policy he has pursued since 11 September is the right one for Russia?" Cottrell asks.

Such pro-Western gestures have included Putin's acceptance of U.S. troops in Central Asia and Georgia, his closing of Russian military facilities in Cuba and Vietnam and his softer line on U.S. missile defense and NATO enlargement.

For the moment, Cottrell says, Putin is a powerful and popular president and few people want to go against him openly. But more striking, he says, "is the fact that his policy has so few high-level enthusiasts. [To] conservative Russians steeped in the geopolitics and confrontational logic of communist times, these have been big, rash concessions."

But for Putin, Cottrell says, the idea of "trading favors" with the U.S. has become outdated. Instead, the argument goes, the U.S. and Russia now have a common interest in a stable and peaceful world, so that anything that helps them work together benefits everyone. But Cottrell says it would help Putin's position substantially if he could point to big economic benefits flowing quickly to Russia because of its closer ties to the West.

The danger, Cottrell says, is not that Putin's presidency will be threatened if Russia's pro-Western foreign policy loses momentum. The danger is more of a drift back to the way things often were under former President Boris Yeltsin, when the army, security services, and various industries "pursued whatever overseas dealings and adventures served their own short-term interests."

"A return to that confusion would not end Mr. Putin's presidency," Cottrell concludes. "But it would undermine his -- and Russia's -- power."


Finally, a editorial in "The Washington Post" writes, "before the lovefest in St. Petersburg gets fully under way, it's worth pointing out that, in both foreign and domestic policy, Mr. Putin's state continues to differ dramatically from the democracies that are genuine U.S. allies."

The editorial notes that even as the Russian president dropped his resistance to NATO expansion in exchange for Russia's beefed-up role in the military alliance, Putin "has been stepping up Moscow's efforts to establish political and economic dominion over the European and Central Asian countries outside the alliance, ranging from Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova in Europe to Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan." To preserve his country's influence in this "near abroad," the paper adds, Putin is backing corrupt, antidemocratic regimes throughout the region -- including that of Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whom the paper describes as "Europe's last Stalinist dictator." Putin's continued defiance of calls for a political settlement in Chechnya, it adds, should also be cause for alarm.

Putin's admirers, the editorial says, "argue that he is ahead of his elite in cooperating with the West, and so cannot easily control clashing policies [such as] Russia's continuing sales of nuclear technology to Iran. But Putin's personal stamp is as much on Russia's handling of Belarus and Chechnya as it is on relations with NATO; it's just that the latter gets much more attention in the West." It concludes, "Putin's policies make more sense, and no longer seem so contradictory, if they are understood not as the revolutionary steps of a Russian Thomas Jefferson but as the more pragmatic efforts of a hard-headed former KGB officer to restore Russian influence in the world by the best available means."

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