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Western Press Review: The Iraqi Opposition, Russia's Free Press, And Why Join The EU?

Prague, 17 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in Western media commentary today are the hopes for peace offered by European Union membership, the London meeting of Iraqi opposition figures to plan a possible postwar democracy in Baghdad, the uncertain future of Russia's free press, and the continuing, large-scale repression of women in Afghanistan.


In the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," columnist George Melloan asks, despite "all the self-congratulation" in the wake of the European Union enlargement summit in Copenhagen last week (12-13 December), "Why does anyone want to join the EU?" Several EU policies have been disastrous, he points out.

Overgenerous farm subsidies deplete the EU budget and earn criticism from developing nations, whose farmers cannot compete with their wealthier, subsidized counterparts. EU fisheries policy has drained fish stocks, EU common foreign policy has foundered, and Europe's military clout dwindles due to underfunding. And yet, says Melloan, in Copenhagen, 10 European nations sought membership in this flawed association, "and there are more waiting in line."

These aspirant nations have "sound reasons" for wanting to join, he says. Many of Europe's nations have never had security. And European leaders "have noticed that EU and NATO membership has calmed down the ancient animosities that have soaked the European continent with blood for centuries." Melloan says former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill "was prophetic when just after World War II he proposed that Europe knit itself together with friendly alliances."

The successful development of a European economy has been based on free trade. And "peace, security and free trade are a winning combination," says Melloan. Despite some "fundamental errors" and occasional "relapses into bureaucratic interventionism, that combination is the reason states want to join."


"On the political front, the Iraq conflict is becoming more and more entangled day by day," says the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," in reference to the London meeting of some 300 representatives of Iraqi opposition groups. The meeting is in its fifth day, although it was scheduled to last three.

Even though the Iraqi exiles agreed on which ethnic, political, and religious groups should comprise a leadership committee that would act as a transitional government, they have been unable to agree on which individuals would fill the seats allocated to each group on the 50-member committee.

The paper says the Iraqi opposition is a reflection of the Arab world, "splintered into clans, incapable of common action, and politically insignificant," and adds that it is a pity the U.S. is financially supporting and relying on these men to build a democratic Iraq.

The paper expresses little faith in these exiled leaders, and says it is up to the people within Iraq who have been suffering for decades to rebuild their country after what it says is the "almost inevitable" war.


Martin van Creveld in "Die Welt" expresses his skepticism over the possibility of war against Iraq. "The more time elapses, the more incomprehensible the United States' Iraq policy becomes," he says. U.S. President George W. Bush declares at regular intervals that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must be disarmed and that the U.S. is prepared to assert this demand, with force if need be. "In actual fact," he says, "there are few signs that genuine preparations for a military attack are under way."

U.S. officials have threatened war often in the past year, but in the end nothing comes of this pressure. We know, Creveld writes, that "one must not cry wolf too often without losing credibility. The more frequently the date for a war is postponed, the less seriously the threat will be taken and the more resources will be required to exert subsequent pressure.

"If the Bush administration is finally coerced into showing its true colors, it may be forced to wage a war. But at present, it is hard to predict where all this will lead. One thing is clear," says Creveld. "Whoever plays with fire is liable to go up in flames."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" looks at the differences in perception between populations in the United States and the rest of the world, in light of a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Polling 38,000 people in 44 countries this year, the survey sought to gauge attitudes toward the United States, as well as global issues. The paper says the survey confirmed much of what one might expect: "that people overseas simultaneously embrace American culture while decrying its influence on their societies; [and] that economic prosperity tends to insulate Americans from appreciating the everyday deprivations suffered by most people on the planet."

When asked to identify "the greatest threat facing the world, Americans chose terrorism and nuclear weapons, while majorities in other countries, especially in Africa, picked poverty and disease. In much of Asia, [the] greatest global threat was perceived to be environmental degradation."

Populations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world also differ on which countries they believe to be global strategic threats. "[Only] majorities in the United States and Britain felt that Iraq was a greater threat to the world than other trouble spots such as the Middle East or North Korea."

The paper concludes the Pew Center's findings indicate that "the views of other nations must be heeded more closely as the world's sole remaining superpower develops foreign policy."


In Britain's "Financial Times," the editor of the Russian media-industry magazine "Sreda," Aleksei Pankin, discusses the results of an annual two-question poll of media executives, which asks what events in politics, the economy, and public life were most important for the country's mass media over the past year, and what are some of the hopes and/or concerns for the year to come?

Pankin says, in looking forward to 2003, that members of the Russian media seem "ambivalent." The issues for the press "didn't get worse in 2002, but they didn't get much better, either." Many in the industry hope things will improve, but also acknowledge that they might get worse.

Pankin says the Russian media "was perhaps not at its best" during the Moscow hostage-taking crisis in October, but he asks, "[Did] its transgressions really merit the punishment meted out in the planned amendments to the mass media law?"

Fortunately, he says, Russian President Vladimir Putin vetoed the bill, which would have placed restrictions on the media's reporting of all "counterterrorism" operations. Pankin says Russia's press "is now working on a code of ethics that spells out norms of professional behavior for covering crisis situations. But the risk remains that the press will become a willing accomplice in the vertical structure of power."

The "transformation of the mass media into a normal, socially responsible industry could be reversed as the political stakes rise," Pankin warns.


In a contribution to "The Washington Times," author Amir Taheri calls the London meeting of Iraqi exile groups to discuss a possible postwar Iraq "a success," but says the conference has also suffered from a number of shortcomings. "It emphasized [separating] religion from politics but ended up distributing seats [in] a kind of unofficial 'government in exile' [on] the basis of religious, even sectarian, affiliations." Organizers sought "to sideline ethnic divisions," but Taheri says "choosing religious divisions as demarcation lines is worse."

The conference also assumed the task of removing Saddam Hussein from power belonged to the United States. The focus of the Iraqi exiles' discussion "was about what happens after Saddam. This was unfortunate," Taheri says. "Saddam's regime has become overthrowable, and could be toppled without a full-scale war effort led by the Americans."

Saddam maintains power due to three factors, Taheri says: His monopoly on heavy weapons such as tanks and aircraft, his monopoly on oil revenue, and the "pathological fear he has instilled in a majority of Iraqis."

Taheri says that "a scenario in which the Iraqis themselves defeat Saddam, with the United States providing heavy back-up support," should not be excluded. "The London conference, however, did not consider it." He says, "How a regime falls is the key factor in determining what happens afterward."


In a contribution to "The Washington Post," Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch says, "The common perception outside Afghanistan is that when the U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban, women and girls were liberated." But the truth, she says, "is somewhat different."

One of the most repressive areas is Herat Province, ruled by local warlord Ismail Khan. "Herat police now arrest women and girls found alone with men to whom they are not related -- even when walking in the [street]. The police then take them to the hospital for forced medical examinations to determine whether they have recently had sexual intercourse." She points out that some women elect to stay in prison because they feel safer there than within their own communities.

"Things are getting worse," writes Coursen-Neff. "More than a year after the Taliban's fall, it is time for the United States, United Nations, and others to follow through on their rhetoric of change and freedom." She says the world "must lend material and moral support to Afghanistan's women so they can stand up to the male-dominated warlord culture all around them" and "articulate, demand and obtain their basic human rights."

She says as long "as women continue to see prison as a better alternative to their lives in Afghanistan, the rest of the world should know it has failed."


In France's daily "Liberation," columnist Patrick Sabatier takes a look at the more sinister side of the Christmas holiday. He says each year, Santa Claus fills his traditional sackful of gifts with toys made on the other side of the world by those barely out of childhood who are working for "starvation wages." Safety conditions and workers' rights are nonexistent, as toys are produced cheaply for large multinationals and distribution giants seeking to provide toys to the West at "unbeatable" prices.

For the East, this is nothing new, says Sabatier. The toy industry, like many others, relocates where it can find "cheap, hardworking, and disciplined manpower." Much manufacturing is now centered in Guangdong Province in China, but Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand have all experienced similar "gold rushes" that have allowed them to escape famine for a time, then to seek the implementation of minimal labor laws.

Sooner or later, industry will move away from Guangdong and set up shop again in another -- poorer -- Chinese province with lesser labor demands.

Now, Western consumers are beginning to demand producers and distributors ensure minimal standards are met for the workers involved in producing goods. This harmonization of social standards is desirable, says Sabatier, not only for moral reasons but also economic. Globalization, he says, can only contribute to development if the rules of the game become universal.