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Western Press Review: Baku's Dynastic Presidency, Democratic Ideals Versus Realpolitik In Central Asia

Prague, 25 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press commentary today begins with a look at the controversial succession plans for the presidency of Azerbaijan, where Ilham Aliyev is expected to succeed his ailing father despite strong opposition. Other topics of interest include the chance for a greater UN role in the Iraqi occupation, implementing reforms in Serbia in a bid for EU membership, and weighing realpolitik security interests and democratic ideals in the formulation of Western policy on Central Asia.

Several items in the Western press today discuss the expected -- and controversial -- succession of Ilham Aliyev to Azerbaijan's presidency, should his ailing father prove unable to run for re-election in 15 October polls. The younger Aliyev was designated prime minister earlier this month in what some viewed as a transparent attempt to ensure his bid for the presidency. Under the Azerbaijani Constitution, the prime minister temporarily but automatically assumes power if the president is unable to serve.


Ilham Aliyev is in the United States this week and is expected to meet with officials from the U.S. administration. But "The Washington Post" says the White House "is mistaken not to speak out more firmly for democratic norms" in Azerbaijan. Washington should "rectify its mistake this week" when administration officials meet with the younger Aliev.

Azerbaijan's election commission "has refused to register credible opposition candidates. Police are breaking up opposition party meetings, detaining some people, beating up others. The media remain under government control." If Ilham Aliyev succeeds his father in "a fair election, the United States ought to wish him well. But it ought to make clear also that it has no interest in abetting the establishment of yet another corrupt, hereditary monarchy in a Muslim nation where the proceeds of oil wealth seem never to trickle down."


An item in "Eurasia View" also discusses the plans for presidential succession in Azerbaijan, ahead of Ilham Aliev's trip to Washington this week. The electronic publication says leaders of Azerbaijan's political opposition "are furious" at the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "for sanctioning the transfer of power" from current President Heidar Aliyev to his son, Ilham. "The opposition in Baku maintains that such a dynastic succession violates not only Azerbaijani legislation, but also runs contrary to the democratic principles that supposedly serve as the foundation of U.S. foreign policy." Moreover, they view Ilham Aliev's meeting with Bush administration officials this week "as an improper move by Washington to support a particular presidential candidate" ahead of October elections.

"Eurasia View" says a recent statement from the U.S. State Department "expressed concern about Azerbaijani government practices during the early stages of the presidential campaign, especially the [Aliev] administration's refusal to register prominent Aliyev critics as candidates and the harassment of opposition leaders in Baku. [The] statement also reiterated a U.S. call for a free and fair vote." But the publication says opposition leaders "now ridicule the statement in light of the Bush administration's willingness to embrace Ilham" as a legitimate successor to the presidency.


Writing in "The Washington Times," Jamie Dettmer of "Insight" magazine says the "heretical" idea that the UN should have a larger role in the occupation of Iraq is gaining ground, even within the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. However, Washington remains unwilling to cede any real power to the world body, and for now, the UN Security Council "remains at loggerheads once again." Whether either NATO or other nations will ultimately be willing to share the security burden in Iraq remains questionable, Dettmer says.

He says: "Feeding much of the anti-occupation violence is the general despair Iraqis feel with the lack of material well-being and, ironically, safety. [The] failure to deliver more speedily on the basic needs of Iraqis risks adding to feelings of resentment and wounded national pride and is likely to lead to Iraqis questioning even more the political transition process. [Granting] the United Nations a greater role in the political transition, and devolving more power to a governing council that is more representative, could overcome the reluctance of other countries to help and strengthen the legitimacy of political change in the eyes of Iraqis."

Some hard-liners in the Bush administration seemingly want Iraq to remain a "U.S. show." But Dettmer says, "Unless they are careful, it could become an American quagmire."


An editorial in the London-based "Financial Times" says the news coming out of Central Asia is "rarely good." Tales of nepotism, Stalinist rule, and bizarre personality-cult dictatorships are often par for the course. Yet since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States has set up military bases in the region as a staging area for war in Afghanistan and otherwise strengthened regional cooperation with dubious regimes. This, the paper says, "served two further purposes: improving American access to Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas, and extending U.S. influence to a region hitherto dominated by Russia and of constant concern to China."

There was a hope that Central Asian rulers "would pursue economic and political reform, which would be good for their citizens and for stability." But reform has since foundered. "Central Asians are poorer than they were under Soviet rule and most are still governed by dictators."

Thus the U.S. is in a familiar bind, similar to its involvement in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The paper says, "People are unhappy, they blame the dictators in charge and they are starting to resent the U.S. for supporting those dictators."

The problem, says the paper, "is that the U.S. cannot balance its security needs, for which it must deal with those in power, with the requirements of democracy." The U.S. must "lead by example elsewhere in the Islamic world." And this means "restoring order and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan."


Stefan Kornelius in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says those who wish Iraq well should listen carefully to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who favors power sharing and wants the UN to be given a broader mandate. The UN knows its limitations when it comes to military leadership, however. Thus, the U.S. must first bring peace and security to Iraq and establish the necessary political structures.

So far, however, the U.S. civilian and military leadership lacks coordination. Military units in the provinces are being recalled or replaced with foreign troops, without the prior establishment of a civil administration. Iraqi officials, soldiers, and police are still waiting to be reinstated. Crime syndicates have seized what is left of the economy in the country. Potential political leaders are not being promoted in the towns and communities and no one is endowing them with power. Meanwhile, Kornelius says the leaders in Washington are engaged in fantastical debates over whether the addition of several hundred thousand troops will resolve the security situation.

These problems are the very ones a UN mandate could rectify, Kornelius says. The ongoing rivalry between the military and civilian aspects of the occupation can only be brought to an end if a political framework guides military action. And the Iraqi people will only accept a political imposition if it is legitimized by many nations, including their Arab neighbors.


Writing in "The New York Times," Ian Fisher discusses Serbia and Montenegro's stalling efforts at reform in its path toward EU membership. The most pressing issue, he says, is "the political cost of the slowdown in reforms, which is delaying Serbia's entry into the European Union and preventing the country from returning to something like normalcy."

Some observers are concerned that eroding confidence in reformists is leading to growing support for nationalist candidates. Opinion polls already indicate that public confidence in reformist politicians is falling. But the significance of the problem has not yet sunk in among politicians, who continue to think EU membership is merely a question of Brussels' political will. Fisher cites an analyst with the International Crisis Group as saying many Serbian politicians believe that when or if the EU wants to accept Serbia as a member, it will simply happen. They do not recognize that membership relies primarily on critical reforms being made within Serbia.

Meanwhile, Fisher says the rest of the Balkans are moving forward. "Croatia, Serbia's enemy in the 1990s, has moved far ahead toward joining the European Union. Even Bulgaria and Romania, which many [Serbs] regard as hopelessly backward countries, are pushing to join by 2007, many years ahead of what most experts think could be Serbia's date."


Writing in France's daily "Le Figaro," Pierre Prier says even while the Palestinian Authority (PA) is headed for disaster, internal wrangling continues over who is really at the helm. As the Israeli army embarks on a new campaign of targeting Hamas leaders and conducting widespread arrests, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat continues his attempts to marginalize his archrival, Minister of Internal Security Mohammad Dahlan, along with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who were both imposed on the Palestinian power structure under international pressure last spring.

Prier says this state of affairs testifies to Arafat's determination to hold on to the reins of power, even while the future of the Palestinian Authority is threatened by both Israel and radical elements of the Palestinian cause. This latest confrontation between Arafat and his two top ministers began last week, when a fatal attack in Jerusalem prompted Washington to call for decisive action from the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud and Dahlan seem to recognize that they have no choice but to respond with resolve. But neither wants to act without the political cover offered by Arafat's approval.

To demonstrate his power, Prier says Arafat at first refused, only later accepting a compromise proposal for action. Even the U.S. administration, which has long avoided any involvement with Arafat, must now admit that he is an inescapable factor in regional politics, Prier says.

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