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Western Press Review: Protests Continue In Iran, Putin's Troubled Rule, And Berlusconi's Bid For Immunity

Prague, 18 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western media today discusses recent developments in Iran, as anti-government protests continue in and around the capital for the seventh straight day. We also take a look at some of the persistent troubles facing President Vladimir Putin's Russia, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's bid for legal immunity, and the detention yesterday of 160 suspected members of a Paris-based Iranian exile group.


Columnist Jonathan Steele of the British "Guardian" says "Internationally, Russia is desperate to be accepted as part of Europe and the 'West.'" And there is a widespread "complacent" view that Russia is making slow but steady progress, even while social indicators do not support this belief. Steele writes, "Every international human rights organization, as well as Russia's own, points to backward movement" in Russian society.

President Vladimir Putin's Russia struggles with the "increasing concentration of executive power in the Kremlin at the expense of an emasculated parliament," and the "inordinate influence" of business on political life. Steele says Russia's "neo-liberal reforms have created widespread inequalities," leaving many Russians "worse off economically."

And then there is the war in Chechnya. Putin seems to have convinced Britain's Tony Blair and other EU leaders that the war in the Caucasus is a mere "sideshow," says Steele. But in reality, the conflict "eats away at Russia's social health, [corrupting] Russia's army and police and giving a green light to cruelty."

But Putin insists on continuing this "endless and corrupting war," even though "without risking his own power, [he] could easily pursue dialogue with all the Chechen factions on a cease-fire, a programme of autonomy and reconstruction, and the withdrawal of Russian forces." Steele says Putin's "fellow leaders in the G-8" should insist on these actions, "not as a ritual item [on] their list of talking points but as priority number one."


A "Washington Times" editorial says Washington's approach to Tehran has relied largely on using diplomacy to slow down Iran's nuclear development. This has involved pressuring Russia to end its assistance of Iran's nuclear power program and pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency to be more assertive in documenting Iran's non-compliance with international inspectors. This pressure may be starting to work, says the paper. The IAEA's report on 16 June outlined Iran's failure to cooperate with inspectors, and Tehran has "belatedly" moved to provide missing information in recent months.

"The Washington Times" goes on to discuss the student-led pro-reform demonstrations that have erupted in Tehran and elsewhere in Iran for the past week. These protests may indicate that the conservative clerics' "days as rulers of Iran are numbered," the paper says. But the danger "is that they will be able to produce a nuclear weapon or two before their regime collapses. In the short term," the paper says, Washington "can reduce this danger by continuing to work with the IAEA to force Iran to come clean, while leaning forward in support of the popular uprising."


An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" also discusses the past week's events in Iran, and says the United States and the European Union should demand increased Iranian compliance with "new and intrusive" weapons inspections. But Iran's government has been cooperative at times, it notes. Reformist President Mohammed Khatami "recently denounced terrorism and has cautiously tried to open up the boundaries of society against hard-line adversaries."

The paper says, "Faced with enough internal and external pressure, the [conservative] mullahs could budge -- as long as the changes do not seem linked to U.S. demands."

As for U.S. policy on Iran, "the best outcome in Tehran would probably come from [the U.S.] maintaining as low a profile as possible."


In a commentary entitled "An Abuse of Power," Britain's "Financial Times" discusses the decision expected today in Italy's lower house of parliament that is likely to grant legal immunity to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for his remaining time in office. A three-year-old pending trial against Berlusconi accuses him of bribing judges during the takeover battle for formerly state-owned food company SME in the 1980s.

The "FT" notes that many of Italy's parliamentary deputies are likely to support Berlusconi's bid for immunity to avoid scandal ahead of Italy's 1 July takeover of the EU rotating presidency. But the paper calls such a "transparent maneuver" a "deep embarrassment for both Italy and the EU, casting doubt over the quality of democracy citizens can expect. For a prime minister to use his parliamentary majority to set himself above the law in a case of blatant self-interest -- and for that to be tolerated by other governments -- throws a shadow over the entire EU."


A "Daily Telegraph" editorial says recent events in Iraq have evidenced "a woeful lack of strategic direction on the part of the [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration, and a failure to deliver basic services, whether protection of citizens, payment for work done, or provision of electricity."

The British daily describes Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer as "an able, hard-working administrator," but says he lacks the sufficient tools to carry out his mandate.

The "Telegraph" says Iraq "needs more coalition soldiers to provide security, and more foreign officials to run a country that, having been decapitated by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has swiftly slid [into] chaos. The Americans are right to pursue de-Ba'athification [but] the consequence of such purges will be even greater reliance on outside help while new people are trained."

A "coherent, long-term plan for restoring democracy and reviving the economy" is needed for Iraq, the editorial says. "America and Britain, the occupying powers, have as great a responsibility to Iraq as they did to Germany in 1945. Then, the stability of a shattered Europe was at stake. Today, it is the creation of a state that can serve as a model for a region condemned to decline by corrupt and autocratic government."


The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" describes the detention yesterday on possible terrorism charges of more than 160 alleged members of an Iranian exile opposition group based in Paris as "a crackdown at the right moment."

The paper goes on to say that the arrests of those thought to be affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) likely had little to do with the ongoing widespread protests in Iran, "since such a strike was surely the result of a long-term campaign." It has to be said, however, that the timing was well chosen, the paper adds.

Washington would like to see a change of regime in Tehran and a popular uprising against the ruling conservative mullahs. The U.S. hawks are intent on destabilizing the country, the paper says, whereas Paris had no desire for a war against Iraq and even less for a war with Iran. In France's opinion, the situation in the Mediterranean and in Afghanistan is unstable enough as it is, the paper says. For Paris, "Iran should be tamed, shackled, and given time to reform." But these arrests have now "removed a thorn that might have proved onerous for the Iranian mullahs," the commentary concludes.


An item in Belgium's "Le Soir" discusses a demonstration by roughly 300 former Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad, in which one protester was killed and another injured. The former soldiers were demonstrating to demand payment of their salaries, which had not been received since U.S. Iraqi administrator Bremer formally dissolved the Iraqi army on 23 May. After protesters began throwing stones at U.S. troops, the Americans opened fire on the crowd, resulting in the two casualties.

The Belgian paper says today's confrontation is the latest in a series of scuffles between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Yesterday, several hundred former Iraqi soldiers demonstrated in Mosul, also demanding to be paid. Demonstrators sought to infiltrate local administration buildings, but the police prevented them, provoking skirmishes and an exchange of shots.


Jacky Durand, the Baghdad correspondent for France's daily "Liberation," says Iraqis have embarked "on an exercise that is as new as it is audacious" -- public polls have reappeared in a country where, hardly more than two months ago, deviating even a little from the cult of Saddam Hussein could send you to one of Iraq's infamous prisons.

Iraq's new "Assaah," or "The Hour," is one of approximately 70 newspapers that have emerged in Iraq in the past two months. According to a 14 June poll in which it asked Iraqis what form of government they preferred, 66 percent want an Islamic state, 25 percent prefer a secular state, 4 percent seek a return to monarchical rule, and 3 percent want a government composed of technocrats.

"Assaah" says the poll was taken from a sampling of 200 respondents from various social classes. The majority of those polled want a government completely composed of Iraqis, the paper said, unhindered by American stewardship. This majority seeks the fusion of a democratic government with an Islamic state, which will be able to extend its control over the entire nation and preserve its unity.

Moreover, says Durand, Iraqis wish to ensure that all political parties and stripes are represented, while also keeping fanaticism in check.

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