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Western Press Review: Niyazov's Political Crackdown, Media Restrictions In Chechnya, And North Korea And Iraq

Prague, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today looks at Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's moves to crush his political opposition, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's response to the 5 January twin suicide-bomb attacks in Tel Aviv, Poland's economic woes, and Russia's crackdown on reporting in Chechnya. Several opinion and editorial items also continue the debate over whether it is Iraq's or North Korea's weapons programs that pose a greater threat to global stability.


An item in today's regional daily "Eurasia View" says Turkmenistan's political situation has changed dramatically since a failed assassination attempt on 25 November on President Saparmurat Niyazov. Turkmen authorities have since "arrested dozens in connection with the assassination conspiracy." In the weeks following the attempt, Niyazov "has thoroughly neutralized the exile-led effort to oust him" by imprisoning those alleged to be involved. Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov was sentenced to life in prison last week (30 December) for his alleged involvement, after the broadcast of a televised confession and a trial lasting less than a day. Several observers surmised that Shikhmuradov's confession was the product of torture or drugs administered by the authorities while in custody.

The paper says that Niyazov, having "broken the back of the opposition-in-exile movement, [now] appears intent to make certain that it never makes a recovery." The Turkmen leader also recently struck a new security agreement with Russia, under which "Turkmen opposition leaders will be effectively denied a vital base for future activities." For its part, Russia hopes this deal will reestablish its influence in Central Asia, which has eroded since the United States set up military bases in the region as part of its antiterrorist campaign.


In "The Washington Times," Roger Carstens of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs says that in the debate over whether the weapons programs of Iraq or North Korea pose the greatest threat to global stability, Iraq "is still public enemy number one."

North Korea, says Carstens, "clearly desires a return to the world scene." President Kim Jong-il wants his nation to become a nuclear power "as a matter of international prestige." Moreover, he wants to sign a nonaggression pact with the United States -- "but only after increasing his nuclear weapons stock," says Carstens. "Better to negotiate from a position of strength."

North Korea also wants more fuel oil and humanitarian food aid "in return for promises not to sell plutonium, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction to state and non-state actors." Carstens says, "All of this is geared to reintroducing North Korea to the world stage and enabling its economic and political integration into the international community."

Kim Jong-il's ultimate goal is the survival of his regime. "Not expansion. Not regional dominance. [Just] survival," he adds.

"Which is why Iraq is a more imminent and dangerous threat," says Carstens. He says Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "is an expansionist megalomaniac whose stated goal is political and military domination of the Middle East, [who has] no desire to negotiate [and] a recent history of aggression." Carstens calls this "a situation that requires immediate attention."


An editorial in "The New York Times" today says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is justified in responding "swiftly and firmly to Palestinian terrorist outrages" such as the 5 January twin suicide-bomb attacks in Tel Aviv, which left 23 dead and injured scores of others. But the paper says when the prime minister's actions actually "undermine the prospects for better Palestinian governing and an eventual end to the violence," he does not serve the interests of his nation.

Following the twin bomb attacks, Sharon barred Palestinian delegates from attending a meeting in London next week that is set to discuss reform of the Palestinian leadership and promote better security measures to counter terrorist attacks. But the paper says instead, Israel should be reinforcing such "international efforts to encourage reform and moderation among the Palestinian leadership." If Israel and the Palestinians are ever to resume negotiations, "both camps will have to look beyond the daily bloodshed to the longer-term welfare of their peoples." And Israel can start down this more constructive path "by letting Palestinian representatives attend the London meeting."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" looks at Poland's economic plight and its general atmosphere of discontent as the country approaches a referendum on joining the EU. The paper says Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller has done the right thing in dismissing two ministers (6 January) who contributed to negative press reports and fostered a general mood of disenchantment.

The Polish leader radically remade his economics team by dismissing Jacek Piechota, economy minister, and Wieslaw Kaczmarek, state treasury minister. However, the paper adds, this measure alone will not improve the economic situation. It is even more important to dispel the mood of indifference, apathy, and even outright rejection of EU membership in the forthcoming referendum. "A negative outcome would be fatal not only for the country but also for Miller, and would mean the end of his political career," the paper says.

The commentary questions whether the two firings are sufficient to change the course of events, as the paper describes Miller as a man "who does not generate enthusiasm, is no orator, and who is depicted by opinion polls as diminishing in popularity."

For all that, says the commentary, it is to be hoped that the new minister for information on Europe, the dynamic Lech Nikolski, will succeed in launching a successful campaign for a "yes" vote in the EU referendum in the spring.


In the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," Cynthia Scharf says the Russian public is unlikely to hear the "truth about the blood-stained catastrophe that is Chechnya," from either its leaders or its media.

Scharf writes, "Three years of hideous carnage have been publicly whitewashed by Russian authorities," which have ignored and at times supported "the acts of murder, torture, kidnapping, and brutality inflicted upon Chechen civilians by Russian forces." She says Russian President Vladimir Putin "is undoubtedly aware of these egregious abuses," yet the Kremlin has done its best "to pressure and intimidate journalists from reporting them."

The resulting "whitewashed portrayal" of the conflict leaves "Russian readers with little sense of the war's true costs -- in casualties, manpower, resources, military morale [or] national conscience."

Moreover, the restrictions on reporting in Chechnya has "enabled the Russian military [to] operate in a climate of lawlessness, with no legal accountability for the ongoing crimes committed by its forces against civilians."

And there seems little likelihood of a resolution in the near future. President Putin has "vilified and ostracized the moderate Chechen leadership, including elected President Aslan Maskhadov; forcibly evicted Chechen families from refugee camps in Ingushetia; [and] stepped [up] violent mopping-up operations against civilians in Chechnya." In the end, says Scharf, "there are no victors in this war."


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" says, "The trouble with North Korea is that isolation simply does not seem to work." The nation has already been isolated for many years. Today, its economy "is in tatters and its people are starving. It is shunned by all but the most dedicated diplomats and aid agencies." Yet President Kim Jong-il's regime "survives and even threatens to produce plutonium to arm its long-range missiles with nuclear warheads." The paper says, "Paradoxically, like all bullies, Mr. Kim will be more threatened by engagement than by open confrontation."

The paper acknowledges that Washington "may be uncomfortably aware that a diplomatic approach to Mr. Kim, who positively advertises his desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction, does not seem to match its far tougher threats against Saddam Hussein in Iraq." But it points out that, considering the North's ability to threaten the South Korean capital Seoul, as well as the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in the area, "there is no alternative." It says what is needed "is a carefully calibrated package of restraints and rewards, designed to bring North Korea back into the real world."


Pyongyang does not represent a global threat, says Sophie Muehlmann in Germany's "Die Welt." North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is merely exploiting an opportune moment for loud saber-rattling in Washington's direction while the U.S. is otherwise engaged with another "rogue state," namely Iraq.

But in fact, says Muehlmann, North Korea is a poverty-stricken country without allies. Although North Korea is in possession of atomic weapons, the country is no longer strategically important, she says. Since the end of the Cold War and moreso in recent months, North Korea's traditional allies, China and Russia, have aligned themselves with the U.S. Peking now has better ties with South Korea than with North Korea, and North Korea has been left completely isolated.

In fact, says Muehlmann, Pyongyang's neighbors are the only ones concerned about placating North Korea. While the rest of the world is giving North Korea a cold shoulder, only Japan, Russia, and China will continue to urge for compromise. Muehlmann says, "It would be wiser for Pyongyang to seek some allies, rather than out of desperation and while harboring a mighty delusion to seek a showdown with America."


In France's daily "Liberation," columnist Gerard Dupuy discusses whether France will participate militarily in the event of a U.S.-led offensive in Iraq. In spite of the prudence of President Jacques Chirac's public declarations, Dupuy says it seems likely that the French Army will take part in a second Gulf war -- if it is endorsed by the UN. The French public, he says, the majority of which is opposed to military engagement, does not seem to realize that the world is embarking on the first important war of the 21st century.

Dupuy goes on to say President Chirac has been skillfully maintaining a diplomatic balance. On one hand, he distanced himself from the U.S. administration with the insistence that it go through the UN Security Council in its dealings with Iraq. Simultaneously, Chirac managed to reaffirm France's commitment to its alliances. Dupuy concludes that if the UN so orders, "war will take place and it will take place with French participation."


An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" also discusses France's ambiguous position in the standoff between Washington and Baghdad -- currently mediated by the UN -- over Iraq's weapons programs. The paper asks, how can it be claimed that only the UN Security Council has the authority to declare war or peace, based on the findings of UN weapons inspectors, when both the United States and Britain are daily amassing their soldiers on Iraq's borders? How can one continue to claim that war can still be avoided?

"Le Monde" goes on to say that, beyond his insistence that any decision on the use of force must be made by the UN Security Council, French President Jacques Chirac has recently made three significant indications of a policy shift. First, he has admitted that, in the event of war, France would take part. Ultimately, the paper says, this is an admission that France has no choice but to align itself with the United States. Secondly, Chirac has now urged the Iraqi leadership to cooperate actively with the UN inspectors in all things in order to avoid a war. Finally, by asking the government to organize a parliamentary debate on the matter, Chirac apparently intends to prepare the public for the possibility of a conflict. The editorial says that this effort will undoubtedly be a delicate battle for the French president.

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