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Western Press Review: Serbia's Elections, Gender Equality In Iraq, And The Mideast

Prague, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics addressed in today's Western media commentary are the results of Serbia's first round of voting in presidential elections, women's rights in the Middle East, and the continuing debate over possible U.S.-led military action in Iraq, in the wake of last week's antiwar demonstrations in cities around the world including Washington, London, and Rome.


"The New York Times" reporter Nicholas Kristof writes from Baghdad regarding the relative freedom offered Iraqi women in contrast to many other Middle Eastern nations. Men and women are free to pray at the mosque together, go to restaurants, talk on the street, or quarrel together, he says. "Girls compete in after-school sports almost as often as boys, and Iraqi television broadcasts women's sports as well as men's." Kristof says the Iran-Iraq war equalized gender roles because as men headed to battle, women had to fill in as the nation's "factory workers, bus drivers, and government officials."

Kristof says Iraq offers "an example of how an Arab country can adhere to Islam and yet provide women with opportunities." But the relative equality of Iraqi women has little to do with the nation's leadership. Instead, one must consider that Iraq "has been civilized more than twice as long as Britain, after all...[Iraq] got its first woman doctor back in 1922."

But Kristof says the contrast "between an enemy that empowers women" and allies -- such as Saudi Arabia -- "that repress them" should shame the West, and be a reminder "to nudge Arab countries to respect the human rights not just of Kurds or Shiites, but also of women."

As the U.S. ponders military action in Iraq, U.S. allies in the Muslim world "should feel deeply embarrassed that a rogue state offers women more equality than they do."


An editorial in Britian's "The Independent" says the results of Serbia's first round of voting on 29 September provided two significant achievements, as well as a warning. The first achievement was that the elections generally conformed to international standards of fairness. The second positive development was that the two candidates who came out ahead and who will face off in the second round "are both avowed democrats." On 13 October, Serbia's voters will have "a genuine choice" between the rapid, Westernizing economic reform advocated by Miroljub Labus, and Vojislav Kostunica's more gradual, nationally oriented reform.

But "The Independent" says there is a warning contained in the unexpectedly strong showing of stridently nationalist candidate Vojislav Seselj, who came in third and received more than 20 percent of the vote. Seselj also received the support of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic from his imprisonment in The Hague, where he is on trial for war crimes. The paper says Seselj's popularity may indicate that the strong nationalist sentiment to which Milosevic appealed in the past still has plenty of supporters in Serbia. Milosevic has been overthrown, but Serbia may not yet have overcome the social forces that put him in power.


An editorial in "The Irish Times" says "It is too early yet to tell whether the welcome withdrawal by Israeli troops from their siege of [Palestinian Authority] President Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah represents a significant shift in policy by the Israeli government." The paper asks: "Will the pointless ritual dance of invasion and withdrawal just resume again as soon as the next desperate Palestinian blows up himself and some Israelis?"

Perhaps pressure from Washington was partly responsible for this latest Israeli withdrawal, the editorial remarks. It may be becoming clear to the U.S. administration that Israel's repeated defiance of UN Security Council resolutions condemning its actions in the occupied territories is directly affecting American diplomatic efforts to build a coalition that includes Mideast nations to support a possible campaign against Iraq.

The paper says that "it would seem to be obvious" that the "unrestrained" policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, along with "the powder keg of Palestine, represent the most serious obstacles to U.S. intervention in Iraq." Could the U.S. "really sustain a serious military campaign in Iraq if there is a war going on in the occupied territories?" it asks doubtfully. The paper says perhaps Washington's new realization will result in "a more robust long-term willingness" on the part of the U.S. administration "to take on the Sharon government over its counter-productive confrontational policies."


In the French daily "Liberation," Jean Quatremer says Europe has finally given in to Washington's demands for the International Criminal Court, as EU foreign ministers decided yesterday to grant U.S. peacekeepers and government officials immunity from prosecution. In May, the United States withdrew its signature from the Treaty of Rome that provided for the creation of the court over its stated and intractable objections.

The EU struggled to maintain some sort of united stance on the issue, even as individual member states diverged. While Great Britain, Italy, and Spain found the U.S. stance understandable, France sought to avoid confrontation on the issue and Germany remained "inflexible," says Quatremer. The White House remains "very hostile" toward the international court, and continues to demand that nations sign bilateral agreements with Washington exempting Americans from the court's jurisdiction. Because of the persistent divisiveness among the Europeans, EU foreign ministers yesterday ceded to U.S. demands in order to ensure that the EU could establish guidelines for the types of agreements member states would be free to conclude with the U.S.


In Belgium's "Le Soir," Agnes Gorissen says the test has now begun in Vienna, as Iraqi representatives meet with chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. The objective will be to work out a method for the return of inspectors, absent since 1998, to Iraq, following the announcement on 16 September that Iraq's Saddam Hussein would allow for their "unconditional" return. The first day of "technical" discussions was concluded yesterday, as officials sought agreement on methods, access, escorts, visas, and other details. Gorissen cites a participating official as saying "progress" was made, and an agreement should be finalized by next week (8 October).

She calls the Vienna meeting a test of Baghdad's willingness to comply with international demands regarding its weapons capabilities. If these discussions meet with obstacles, the U.S. may use their failure to justify a preemptive strike. Gorissen remarks that the timing of the Vienna talks is also key, as Washington is due to present a draft of a new resolution to the UN Security Council tomorrow. This U.S.-drafted resolution will be something of an ultimatum, she says, for if Baghdad does not comply the text will provide for military action to enforce its provisions.


In "Eurasia View," political analyst Roger McDermott of the Scottish Center for International Security at the University of Aberdeen looks at recent shake-ups in Turkmenistan's government organizations. On 10 September, President Saparmurat Niyazov fired the chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB), Colonel General Poran Berdyev, replacing him with Colonel Batyr Busakov. McDermott says the KNB had been operating in turmoil since March, when Niyazov "fired and imprisoned its chief for alleged abuse and corruption." The wave of dismissals coincided with a movement to unseat the president, spearheaded by former Foreign Minister Boris Shikmuradov. The Ministry of Defense and other government organizations also experienced a reshuffling during this period.

McDermott says that by targeting the KNB security apparatus, President Niyazov "has left little room for misinterpretation. In July, the People's Council in Ashgabat revealed that Niyazov intended the complete overhaul of the country's law enforcement agencies." The author says this made clear that the personnel changes "masked a deeper crisis," likely related to Niyazov's grip on power. By overhauling the KNB, he may be trying to increase the organization's ability to repress the political opposition.


In "The Washington Post," Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center says the U.S. administration's new security strategy "reflects an extraordinarily unbalanced approach to dealing with the threats posed by terrorism, asymmetric warfare, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Under this new policy, "deterrence is downgraded, while preemption is elevated from a military option to a doctrine." Diplomacy, treaties, and other cooperative security initiatives -- such as export controls, nonproliferation agreements, and the work of multilateral institutions -- are sidelined. Krepon says this "skewed approach" is "unwise," as well as "dangerous."

"Nowhere is this more evident than in the administration's plans for a military campaign against Saddam Hussein, who has the capacity to use chemical and biological weapons," he writes. The Bush administration's "preparations for warfare in Iraq have been preceded by the systematic denigration, weakening, or rejection of treaties dealing with the deadly weapons that U.S. soldiers might face in combat."

Krepon says even if the U.S. were to win a military campaign in Iraq, "success will be short-lived if nonproliferation and disarmament treaties continue to be weakened, and if initiatives to prevent dangerous weapons and materials from falling into the wrong hands" continue to be undermined.