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Western Press Review: Russian Economic Woes, Stabilizing Afghanistan, And The Aliyev Succession

Prague, 7 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in today's daily newspapers takes a look at the economic difficulties plaguing Russian as the Yukos scandal continues, planning a rapid-reaction force under the command of the UN, peacekeeping in Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan's contentious political succession, among other issues.


Writing in "The Moscow Times," Christof Ruhl of the World Bank discusses the underlying economic problems highlighted by a scandal involving Russia's energy giant Yukos. Russian authorities have opened eight probes into Yukos's financial dealings over the past month in moves many suspect are an attempt to sideline politically influential Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii ahead of December parliamentary elections. Many foreign investors consider Yukos to be one of Russia's most transparent companies, and the accusations of financial mismanagement have shaken Russian financial markets.

Investor confidence has been particularly hard hit. Ruhl says as long as "political interference [in] the economic process is perceived to exist, the more difficult it will be to attract capital into Russia, be it foreign or domestic."

But there is another structural problem highlighted by the Yukos affair, says Ruhl. Many feel that the post-Soviet privatization process was conducted unfairly. Due to this and "the enormous gaps in wealth and income that have emerged, the existing distribution of property rights is rejected by a majority of the population."

Property redistribution "is not an option," Ruhl says. But granting a general amnesty would further weaken the legal system. Ruhl questions whether past ills can be addressed without redistribution, and asks, "[Can] closure really be obtained if the overwhelming majority of the population is convinced it has been cheated?"

He says a vigorous debate on these questions is needed "that will bring about a broad consensus rather than yet another truce between a small group [of] oligarchs and politicians."


A contribution to "The New York Times" by Brian Urquhart, a former UN undersecretary-general for special political affairs, calls for the United Nations to have a force of its own that can react to crisis situations without the delaying deliberation single nations undergo before deploying troops.

Urquhart says today, "after so many peacekeeping operations, and one or two disasters, governments are less willing to have their soldiers involved in a distant conflict of no discernible national interest to their own countries." But if UN members "can no longer urgently provide the necessary peacekeeping troops to moderate desperate, if politically insignificant, situations, some alternative must be found."

People the world over have "expressed remorse for the failure to stop the Rwanda genocide nine years ago. How many more human disasters will fester and multiply before an effective means of international intervention is found?" Urquhart says a "highly trained rapid reaction force, permanently at the disposal of the Security Council, would be the most efficient way of spearheading international efforts to deal with the Liberias of the future."

While "[even] to mention this idea is heresy in some circles in Washington, [amid] the desperate appeals for help from victims of anarchy and civil war, surely it deserves renewed consideration."

He says an added bonus would be that the "existence of such a force would, incidentally, relieve the United States and other countries of painful decisions like the one they have recently faced over Liberia."


Ahead of a visit this Sunday (10 August) by German Defense Minister Peter Struck to Kabul, where command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be handed over to NATO from the current German-Dutch command, a commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses the options for stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan.

The commentary says, "Afghanistan actually consists only of Kabul." The influence of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai does not reach beyond the capital, which the multinational force controls. But even ISAF troops have not dared to penetrate into the "deeply disrupted countryside." The paper adds, "Confronted with the reorganized Taliban fighters, what remains of Al-Qaeda and rival warlords, ISAF has had its hands full in just protecting Kabul and itself."

However, time is running out, since elections are due to be held in the whole of Afghanistan in less than a year. The commentary says one new idea is to bring order to the provinces by employing "regional teams" that would be concerned primarily with reconstruction. But even this idea suffers from "indecision," while the paper says "sending a few pioneers to build bridges will not break the might of the terrorists and autocrats in the provinces."

It seems the West is unwilling to pursue massive engagement, but neither is it prepared to give up altogether. The West "is seeking a middle way," which the paper says, "could prove the longest and worst way."


Peter Muench in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" takes a look at the situation in Afghanistan and specifically cites the government's inability to control the country and the impossibility of ensuring security and stability with only the weak international forces that are available.

Muench says discussions still "center on old lies," for it is obvious that talks are not leading toward bringing in a mighty force of thousands such as the West sent to Bosnia and Kosovo.

Considering the responsibility the West assumed in Afghanistan, Muench says, "there is only one way: there must be a homogenous force of at least 10,000 -- or more." These men will be responsible for disarming the local militias and ensuring the central government's power is extended throughout the country.

Those who do not want this -- or who are unable to implement the necessary measures -- should not have become involved in Afghanistan in the first place, Muench says.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" in an editorial today discusses the news this week that Ilham Aliyev is likely to succeed his ailing father, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. The paper says the sighs of relief heard from some quarters were "understandable, but short-sighted."

True, Aliyev is not likely "to jeopardize the petrodollars his country generates for Western investors. And it's reasonable to assume that he, like his father, will prove independent-minded when it comes to Russia; supportive of the U.S. in the war on terror; and will strongly resist attempts by Iran to sow fundamentalist fervor in his country."

But the editorial says in the long term, "if Azerbaijan is to truly become a stable, prosperous country," it must address its failings. Baku presides over "massive-scale corruption" and controls the country's media. The political opposition "is regularly harassed" -- just this week (5 August), police beat opposition members demonstrating in Baku for free and fair elections.

The paper says, "a mild authoritarianism" over a transition economy "can be productive [if] that rule is used to build strong institutions and the rule of law, and stamp out corruption." But in Azerbaijan, "authoritarianism has allowed and protected corruption and prevented strong institutions and the rule of law from emerging."

The elder Aliyev "missed an opportunity" to "build on his country's natural wealth." Bestowing power to his son "may achieve a certain short-term stability, but unless his rule is very different, this dynasty will prove a curse for [Azerbaijanis] and certainly no cause for celebration among Western governments and investors."


Writing in France's "Le Monde," Marc Roche asks for how long and at what political price can the British government avoid addressing the death of former Defense Ministry adviser David Kelly? Kelly, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, was buried yesterday in a private ceremony following his apparent suicide last month. But the political crisis surrounding his death grows heavier, Roche says. According to a poll carried out by "The Times" of London, support for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party fell in July to 34 percent, the lowest level in 16 years. Roche says even worse, other surveys suggest the British public trusts the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) more than it does the government.

But the opposition Conservatives in London, supporters of the war in Iraq, have also been marginalized by the debate, while the centrist liberal democrats benefit in voter polls from their opposition to the commitment of British troops overseas. Above all, says Roche, it is the issue of war in Iraq that seems to be openly at issue.

But he says Prime Minister Blair, by using a 30 July speech to emphasize domestic public services -- an unfavorable issue for the political right -- showed himself to be a skilled maneuverer. In spite of his missteps, says Roche, Blair looks better positioned to benefit from a renewal than do the conservatives.

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