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Western Press Review: Afghanistan, Turkey, And The Kremlin's Response To Hostage Crisis

Prague, 4 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today looks at securing practical help for rebuilding Afghanistan, Russia's new media laws, Turkey's weekend elections, Iranian reforms, and the possibilities -- and limitations -- of oil development in the Caspian Basin.


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says, "Bad news has been coming out of Afghanistan," including reports of "malicious fires set at schools for girls, a UN estimate that Afghanistan's opium production could rise to 3,700 tons this year" and continuing sporadic violence. The paper says it should now be clear that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "still seems bereft of any strategic plan to help Afghans reconstruct their country after nearly a quarter-century of constant, destructive warfare."

The U.S. "aversion to nation-building" has meant that U.S. personnel are not helping Afghans "rebuild cratered roads and fallen bridges, repair ruined electrical grids, or revive dilapidated irrigation systems. These are not tasks that require a lot of money, time, or technology," the paper says. They are tasks that are entirely possible and should be completed "not only to improve life in the near term for destitute Afghans but also to help create the indispensable conditions for a stable future in Afghanistan."

If the United States wants to prevent Afghanistan "from descending again into civil war," if it wants to strengthen the central government "and keep the reactionary religious warlords at bay," the Bush administration must "recognize that Afghans expect practical help from Americans."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today warns that the Kremlin's response to last month's theater siege in Moscow "is turning out to be more a test of whether civil society can survive in Russia than whether the state can fight terrorism."

The paper says of course, Russians want to be sure that their government can protect them. But now more than ever, Russia "needs closer scrutiny of its policies by its people and its foreign partners." Many observers suspect that the Kremlin "is using the threat of terrorism to trample on weak democratic freedoms and escalate the war in Chechnya."

The Kremlin's refusal to negotiate with Chechen leaders and its "hawkish rhetoric" suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin "continues to believe the Chechen problem has a purely military solution." The paper says the detention in Denmark of Akhmed Zakaev, a high-ranking Chechen envoy, "raises especially troubling questions." Zakaev had been a frequent and respected negotiator with Russian authorities. The editorial says Russia "needs to fight terrorism, not silence the legitimate voices of the Chechens."

Renewed government pressure on the media and a lack of transparency among the leadership "might conceal problems, as similar repression did in the old Soviet days, but they won't solve it." The paper says that "it would be a shame if Russia's struggle to create a viable civil society becomes another casualty of the senseless war in Chechnya."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says it seems Russian lawmakers are increasingly "reining in" press freedom. Most recently, a package approved on 1 November under the pretext of combating terrorism amended the country's already restrictive press laws to prohibit news outlets from distributing information that hinders counterterrorist operations, disclose the tactics used, or reveal information about those involved.

Although there may be some justification for such a measure, the paper says above all, it "serves to prevent any independent reporting about the war in Chechnya." This latest measure is "typical of the [so-called] 'reformist' Putin," says the paper.

The commentary stresses that even in times of crisis, every democratic society must possess an independent check on the government, such as a free press. Yet "this fact does not seem to have penetrated Putin." The paper says his lack of vision is certainly not helping the overall push for reform in Russia.


In France's "Liberation" daily, columnist Patrick Sabatier discusses the outcome of yesterday's elections in Turkey. Eventually, he says, the European Union is going to have to decide whether to admit or exclude the nation's 65 million Turks, and the victory of the Islamists in the 3 November elections "is not going to help with this decision." He says one can have "reasonable doubts regarding the liberal, democratic, and pro-European convictions exhibited by the majority of 'moderate' Islamists in Ankara."

But Sabatier says the Turkish electorate's decision had more to do with the obvious failures of the establishment parties, Turkey's economic crisis and its endemic poverty than it did with any real intention of bringing down Turkey's secular republic and replacing it with a theocracy based in Sharia law.

Sabatier says the parliamentary victory of Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic Justice and Development Party has its roots in the desire for less corrupt municipal management. No sweeping generalizations, positive or negative, can be made yet about the new leadership, says Sabatier. Turkey is now an experiment in Islamic democracy. For the foreseeable future, it will be a high-stakes chess game between the Islamists, now stronger then ever, and the army, as the ultimate guarantee of the republican and secular state. Europe, he says, should remind both sides that democracy and tolerance are "indispensable conditions" of Turkey's possible entry into the EU.


A commentary on German security forces in Afghanistan is the subject of a commentary in "Die Welt" by Dietrich Alexander. At issue is increased responsibility for German troops in Afghanistan who, from now on, will not merely support U.S. troops in the region, but will be in charge of an area outside Kabul where they will commit troops to the struggle against terrorist groups.

This decision has two implications: first, it runs counter to German parliamentary resolutions, which do not provide for direct combat and thus it "alters the mandate" -- which the commentary says cannot be done without discussion.

Secondly, this decision is actually an extension of the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to cover territory beyond Kabul. There is a general feeling that peace can be brought to Afghanistan only on condition that peacekeeping forces are stationed throughout the country, he says. This, however, places the 1,200 German troops -- with their limited budget and lack of experience and equipment -- in a sad predicament, says Alexander.

He says just because Germany desires worldwide recognition and is now trying to curry favor with the United States, having previously rejected U.S. policy on Iraq, "it is dishonest and reckless to fail to adequately equip its troops for their future tasks in Afghanistan."


In Britain's "Financial Times," international security studies analyst Ray Takeyh of Yale University says Iran "is fast approaching a decisive moment in its relationship with the West."

He says the most recent indication of a change in mood came over the weekend with news that Iranian security forces "detained at least one of Osama bin Laden's sons along with several hundred people suspected of having links to the Al-Qaeda organization. Moreover, Iranian officials are now signaling grudging support for the U.S. campaign against Iraq and [a] willingness to lessen tensions with Israel."

Takeyh says the U.S. administration "must acknowledge [Iran's] desires for better relations with the West -- or risk derailing the war on terrorism." This renewed desire for engagement stems from "a recognition, among all of Iran's fractious factions, that the country has suffered from its insistence on remaining on the sidelines in each of the region's post-Cold War conflicts," says Takeyh. And as Tehran modifies its stance, "Washington should ease some of its own prohibitions."

Through a more "gradual and subtle approach, the U.S. can "secure an important ally" for its campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and also "slowly compel Iran's leadership to transcend the ideological traps that have alienated its own population."


In "The Boston Globe," Gerald Nadler of the Associated Press discusses the findings of a recent conference on Russia and the former Soviet empire. According to U.S. State Department official and conference speaker Steven Mann, the Caspian Basin's oil reserves will not "make the Central Asian area a new Persian Gulf" in terms of energy production, although the region will play a role in energy markets. Still, much of the world's non-OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil will be coming from the Caspian in the coming years, according to Mann.

Caspian Sea nations contain 50 billion barrels of known oil reserves, says Nadler -- an amount roughly equal to Russia's reserves. Yet these rich resources "do not automatically guarantee prosperity for the region's coming oil powers Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan." In the Soviet era, "oil resources went north to Moscow for distribution," but now Caspian countries, through improved cooperation with the West, are trying to move the oil to Western markets through a series of pipelines.

Nadler says one of the obstacles to the area's economic development via oil "is the region's reluctance to give up on manufacturing and concentrate on extracting natural resources such as oil, aluminum, and tungsten."

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