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Western Press Review: Saudi Terrorism And Remembering The 'Prague Spring' 35 Years On

Prague, 15 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of coverage in the major Western dailies today finds a discussion of Saudi Arabia's struggles with terrorism, within its borders and beyond; Central Europe's shift from getting foreign aid to giving it; and the difficulties encountered by U.S. unilateralism in Iraq. We also take a look back at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which brought a quick and merciless end to the flowering liberalization of Communist rule known as the "Prague Spring."


A report in the London-based weekly "The Economist" discusses the status of Eastern and Central European nations as what the UN calls "emerging" donor countries. In the 1990s, Central Europe and the Baltics received billions in aid ($18 billion) from sources such as the European Union, the U.S. government, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). But today these nations have become net donors to UNDP programs.

EU members beginning May next year, these countries are currently receiving pre-accession funds from the Union this year worth about $3.4 billion. But the EU also expects them to become donors for the poorer nations to their east and south, suggesting 0.39 percent of gross domestic product should be going to aid by 2006.

"That would be a tall order for the new members," "The Economist" says. Most expect to donate no more than 0.1 percent to aid, and others much less. Moreover, these states "have little infrastructure and expertise for managing development aid."

Logistical hurdles notwithstanding, "The Economist" says as new donors Central Europe might consider focusing aid on fellow former Soviet satellites like the Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus, and Central Asia -- areas that have "economic, environmental and political problems echoing the ones the Central Europeans overcame in the 1990s."

A development focus on Eastern Europe and Central Asia would also correspond with the region's foreign-policy priorities. "For their own peace of mind, they want stable and prosperous countries to their east, not poor and rackety ones with dodgy democracies and even dodgier nuclear power stations."


Writing in "The Boston Globe," Jeff Jacoby discusses the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In the months before the invasion, a gradual social and cultural liberalization of Communist rule was taking place known as the "Prague Spring." In January of that year, Alexander Dubcek became the head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He soon called for a wide-ranging democratization of the country, criticized past abuses, liberalized the press, and endorsed free speech and multiparty elections.

The "deep freeze of repression was suddenly thawing," writes Jacoby. "Criticism of the government was being tolerated. [An] intoxicating, heady whiff of freedom was in the air."

And "the reforms kept coming. Censorship was lifted. Travel restrictions were abolished. The secret police were curbed."

But on 20 August, "almost literally overnight, it was dead." Half a million Soviet troops arrived and within hours occupied every major city. Dubcek and his supporters were sent to Moscow. The U.S. reaction "was limited to words, and the troops remained" for the next two decades.

Looking back, Jacoby says Soviet Moscow had "diagnosed the Prague Spring correctly. Dubcek's reforms were indeed a threat to their power." Soviet leaders knew a government that was "both democratic and communist [was] a contradiction in terms." Unchecked, the reforms "would topple communist rule [across] Eastern Europe."

Twenty years after Dubcek, Soviet communism was toppled by another reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev. Jacoby says the secret to Gorbachev's success was that he realized change must go farther than mere reform, as "communism and freedom cannot coexist."


Another item in this week's "Economist" examines recent attempts by Saudi Arabia to crack down on terrorism emanating from within its borders. "[Two] months into its own war on terrorism," "The Economist" says, "[cell] members are being caught with impressive speed" and three major cells have been uncovered.

A series of suicide bombings in Riyadh on 12 May "galvanized the government into taking action," and prompted a "widespread condemnation of al-Qaeda and its ways." The magazine says, "belatedly, the government is making a serious effort" to dismantle the dubious Islamic charities "that have long been a huge source of finance for al-Qaeda."

But the "boldest" move Riyadh has made has been in the mosques. While most imams remain apolitical, Saudi authorities are attempting to discourage some others "from preaching confrontation [and] to teach tolerance of non-Muslims."

"The Economist" says, "to some Saudis this is an insult, a case of the princes [of the House of Saud] doing America's bidding. But others are tired of seeing their country portrayed as a land of hateful zealots, and quietly applaud the move."


The lead editorial in the British daily today also addresses recent attempts by Saudi Arabia to curb terrorist activities on its soil. Tough rhetoric coming out of Riyadh evinces a renewed commitment to exposing terrorist cells. But, "The Guardian" says, "merely to applaud Riyadh for taking more effective action, or urge it to do still more, is a simplistic approach to Islamic extremism."

Blaming the Saudi regime above all, as some in Washington are doing, avoids the West's "shared responsibility for the fundamental injustices which inflame militant opinion in the Middle East." The paper says "for millions of Arabs, the litmus test of Western good faith" is progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement -- but the conflict continues to rage.

"The Guardian" says, "By acknowledging its internal terrorist threat and taking tougher measures against it, Riyadh exposes a gaping contradiction. Saudi Arabia has both been a close ally of the U.S. and the breeding ground for anti-U.S. terrorism."

Riyadh pursues its oil ties with the United States abroad "while using a militant version of Islam to legitimize its rule" at home. This is a "formula which cannot be indefinitely sustained: U.S. cultivation of Saudi Arabia as a bulwark of narrow stability [has] disastrously rebounded." The "monopoly of conservative royal rule in a country where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20 is a growing anachronism," the paper says. "While terrorists must be caught, how to escape from this rigid past is an even bigger challenge."


A "Boston Globe" editorial discusses some of the difficulties being faced by U.S. forces in Iraq, due to the lack of multinational help in reconstruction. Since American soldiers are predominantly the ones on the ground in Iraq, "everything that goes wrong is blamed on them. Antagonisms are directed at Americans because they have authority and are perceived to be carrying out a U.S. agenda, rather than a mission with a global consensus. By making it easy for America to be demonized, U.S. policymakers increase the threat to all Americans worldwide, not just in Iraq."

The financial cost of occupation is, moreover, "significant," the paper says. "Iraqi oil production is increasing, but slowly, and proceeds will cover only a portion of the costs."

While "the efforts to create a constitution have begun, the process will be arduous, probably including the formation of a constitutional convention." And the final draft of the constitution "may have difficulty winning popular support if it is seen as a product of American maneuvering."


An item in "Le Monde" discusses a UN resolution passed yesterday on Iraq, with which the U.S. sought to formally legitimize the Iraqi Governing Council as the ruling administration in Baghdad. But the paper says the final wording of the text of Resolution 1500 merely calls the Iraqi Council an "important" step toward creating "a representative Iraqi government" that will be "internationally recognized." With that, says "Le Monde," the Security Council made clear that the Iraqi Governing Council was neither "representative" nor "internationally recognized."

This is less than Washington was hoping for. U.S. officials originally wanted the resolution to confer formal, international legitimacy and diplomatic recognition to the Iraqi Governing Council. But the paper notes the 25 members of the council were chosen -- and not elected -- by the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, from a broad range or Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. Bremer also retains a veto right over council decisions.

The resistance U.S. diplomats met at the UN yesterday reflects the difficulties encountered in the runup to the Iraq war, says the paper. Then, too, members of the Security Council refused to endorse a resolution that would have conferred legitimacy on U.S. plans for Iraq. Yesterday, the U.S. administration again failed to impose its visions for Iraq on the international community.


Editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave says to truly understand Saudi Arabia's involvement with international terrorism one must consider that al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden "became a hero in the Saudi kingdom 20 years ago. In his mid-20s, he was raising money and recruits to join the mujahedin in their guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan." And when Soviet forces left Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia "to much adulation."

Bin Laden remains "an immensely popular figure in Saudi Arabia," de Borchgrave says. He has the respect of many Wahhabi clerics and Saudi royal princes. Many in the royal family "think of bin Laden as a larger-than-life hero who defeated the mighty Soviet Union and gave the world's only superpower its biggest blow since Pearl Harbor."

But Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, "and most of his royal and non-royal Cabinet colleagues firmly oppose Osama and his evil terrorist enterprise," says de Borchgrave. "They know they are first on al-Qaeda's hit list."

But the crown prince does not speak for the other 24,000 members of the ruling royal family, de Borchgrave notes. And so the "love-hate relationship" the Saudis and their rulers have with both bin Laden and America continues -- a constant reminder of the kingdom's "split personality."