Prague, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Topics addressed in today's Western press commentary include political repression in Central Asia, the economics of security in Afghanistan, the foundering Mideast peace process, Russia's nuclear support to Iran, and recent moves toward diplomacy between Iraq and North Korea.
Writing in the U.S-based "Newsweek" magazine, Eve Conant says that Central Asia today is characterized by repressive political regimes throughout the region. After escaping unscathed from an alleged assassination attempt in November, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov launched a "nationwide witch-hunt" for those involved, including dozens of arrests, televised confessions, and rushed trials.
But condemnations of Niyazov's tactics have been scarce, she says. And his methods seem to be representative of regimes throughout the region. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev sent his two most strident political opponents "to prison camps on the freezing Kazakh steppe" last year. In Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akaev -- who Conant says was "once considered one of Central Asia's most courageous reformers" -- has rolled back press freedoms. Phone taps of Kyrgyz journalists are common, "and several opposition newspapers have [been] shut down." Reports of widespread torture "continue unabated" under Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov.
Conant says independence for these formerly Soviet countries "may have lifted Moscow's iron fist," but "homegrown dictators" appear "happy to pick up the slack." Most dismaying, she says, is the fact that the recent crackdowns on freedoms are coming after the Central Asian republics "attracted world attention and hundreds of millions of dollars in new assistance for their willingness to allow U.S. bases in the region. Rather than discouraging such strong-arm tactics, [the] money seems to have given local dictators free rein."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" today says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "belatedly but smartly reversed direction on North Korea this week by offering to begin direct talks with Pyongyang about its nuclear-weapons programs." The paper says the goal of these discussions should be the "quick and verifiable end to the North's nuclear ambitions."
If Pyongyang decides to cooperate regarding the international community's concerns over its renewed plutonium-enrichment program, the paper says Washington may then agree to negotiate "on issues like food and fuel aid, a framework for peaceful relations and eventual diplomatic recognition. North Korea remains an abhorrent police state," writes the editorial. "Offering greater engagement in return for verifiable arms control holds the best hope for nudging it toward a less totalitarian future and reducing the threat it poses to other countries."
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
A "Los Angeles Times" editorial discusses the flagging Middle East peace process in light of a twin suicide-bomb attack in Tel Aviv on 5 January. This latest attack targeting civilians prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to order renewed military operations in Palestinian areas and to issue a travel ban on a Palestinian delegation headed to talks in London next week. The London conference was to discuss reform of the Palestinian Authority and how to improve security measures against terrorist attacks. Representatives from the U.S., the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union -- the so-called Mideast diplomatic "quartet" -- were also to attend.
The paper calls the travel ban "unfortunate," and goes on to say that a guerrilla movement linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization that claimed responsibility for the bombings "ultimately deserves blame" for pushing Israel to stop the Palestinian delegation from traveling. But it adds that Israel's ban "effectively gives the terrorists control of the peace process."
The Palestinian Authority officially condemned the bombings and claims they cannot stop all terrorist activity carried out for the Palestinian cause. The paper says that although the truth of who sponsors such bombings remains ambiguous, "young men wrapped in explosives should not be permitted to kill the last shreds of a peace process along with their victims."
The British "Financial Times" also weighs in on recent events in the Middle East. It says efforts by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others to revive the peace process and "rescue Israelis and Palestinians from their spiral of destruction have got nowhere," as such efforts have "[lacked] support from Washington and [been] obstructed by the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon." And this highlights what the paper calls "a big difference in trans-Atlantic perceptions." It says Blair, "as Washington's closest ally, is right to highlight how [America's] lack of 'evenhandedness' and 'real energy' in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is feeding 'a sense of double standards' in the Muslim world inimical to any successful fight against terror and rogue weapons."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reacts in a commentary today to the latest diplomatic developments in U.S.-North Korean relations. The paper comments on Washington's major turnaround on its earlier refusal to negotiate with North Korea following its decision to restart a nuclear program that could create weapons-grade plutonium within months.
The paper says day by day, the U.S. is showing more willingness to compromise. But the "subject of negotiations" has changed, the paper notes. Apparently talks will now focus on ways in which North Korea can be persuaded to comply with its international responsibilities. There is no longer any talk of North Korea desisting from pursuing its nuclear-weapons program as a precondition for America's willingness to enter into negotiations.
This, says the paper, shows that Washington has bowed to pressure from South Korea. But it says considering past experience, it is doubtful that anything can be achieved by taking a softer stance toward North Korea. It might even be more conducive to "tighten the screw" on Pyongyang.
The paper opines that the current state of diplomacy is demonstrating how positions of power can be "turned inside-out in a grotesque manner. The bankrupt state of North Korea is now dictating conditions to America, a great power. And the U.S. is playing the game," the paper says.
THE WASHINGTON TIMES:
In a joint contribution to "The Washington Times," former U.S. Representative Don Ritter and founding member of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) Mahmood Karzai say Afghan security and its economy "are mutually interdependent." Building up the Afghan economy "will provide jobs and give people hope. Hope, in spite of poverty. That's security."
But the authors say there is still "so much poverty, deprivation, and destruction" in Afghanistan, a world characterized by "heavily armed militias and others who have never seen a modern business" and "cratered or non-existent roads, minimal electricity and irrigation." They say job creation -- providing "the dignity of work for the Afghan people" -- should be the final aim.
But the authors go on to caution that large-scale international projects such as rebuilding infrastructure can have "the unintended effect of crowding out emerging small and mid-size enterprises responsible for long-term and widespread job and wealth creation."
The high budgets of major organizations such as the UN, World Bank, and USAID (United States Agency for International Development) can drive up the price of Afghanistan's "labor, rents, materials, and services, [creating] a bubble economy in the short term where private Afghan firms can't compete."
The authors suggest the U.S. government, "perhaps in conjunction with the international arm of the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce], the AACC, and others, can take the lead in pushing private enterprise in Afghanistan. That will help bring security long after [U.S.] troops are gone."
The fracturing loyalties of U.S. allies is the subject of a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" by Stefan Kornelius. The author illustrates this point by noting how reluctant Turkey is to allow the U.S. to use its air bases. Similarly, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are none too willing to support the U.S. in a potential military operation against Iraq. Still more disturbing for the U.S. is the latest statement by its faithful "lapdog," British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who declared that the U.S. should listen more to its allies in return. The BBC then spoke of Britain asserting more independence from the U.S.
This resistance among U.S. allies has a common denominator, says Kornelius, notably, that "there is a lack of conviction regarding the [potential Iraq] war and hence public support is lacking," especially among the European democracies. At present, these are mere grumblings ahead of any real military action. But should there be a prolonged war against Iraq, Kornelius predicts U.S. President George W. Bush will find that the friendships he has painstakingly forged among his allies will prove extremely fragile.
In "Eurasia View," international relations analyst Hooman Peimani discusses U.S. concerns over Russia's nuclear-energy cooperation with Tehran. The U.S. has sought to stop Iran from developing nuclear-power plants, and this endeavor has negatively affected U.S.-Russian relations.
A late December visit to Tehran by Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev "highlighted the widening gap between Russia and the United States," and illustrated how Russian strategic interests in Iran conflict with those of the United States.
Rumyantsev announced that Iran's nuclear-power plant at Bushehr would be online in December of 2003, and expressed Russia's interest in expanding its involvement in Iran's nuclear-power program. Peimani notes that Rumyantsev "made these remarks shortly after the United States voiced suspicions about Iran's use of [its] nuclear facilities for military nuclear purposes." He says by "timing his visit so close to this American criticism and keying his remarks to repudiate that criticism, Rumyantsev sent an indirect message about when Russia will defer to American preferences."
Peimani says this visit distanced Russia from the United States in two ways. First, Rumyantsev rejected the U.S. administration's concerns "that the Bushehr plant masks a weapons-building agenda." Second, Rumyantsev stated that Iran and Russia are complying with their obligations under the nonproliferation treaty of 1968. Peimani says Rumyantsev's rhetoric resoundingly contradicts the United States' insistence that Iran is an "untrustworthy" rogue state.
France's daily "Liberation" today discusses the political difficulties Britain is experiencing as a result of its support for a possible U.S.-led military offensive in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is torn between a public that opposes military action and his own support for the United States. In his speech on 7 January, Blair reiterated his support for the U.S. while demanding that the U.S. administration share more of its information with its allies.
"Liberation" says in exchange for London's unflagging support, Britain has gained the confidence of the U.S. president and claims to have had a hand in modifying some of its unilateralist tendencies. At the end of September, Blair sought to defuse some of the criticisms over British-U.S. policy on Iraq by launching a new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. But the Israeli government refused to take part and now, following the double suicide attack in Tel Aviv on 5 January, it has prohibited a Palestinian delegation from traveling to a conference scheduled in London next week. Moreover, the paper notes, Blair's recent Mideast efforts did not receive any support from Washington.
The paper says it will be very difficult for Britain to take part in a U.S.-led offensive in Iraq without a second UN resolution authorizing the use of force. All the polls indicate that the British public do not want any part of a war that is declared by America alone.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)