Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed today in some of the major dailies are Central Europe's hardened stance vis a vis the European Union ahead of accession, U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin's "imperial" ambitions, and persistent doubts in the Baltics over EU membership.
In a contribution to the regional daily, energy-security specialist Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation says the reopened bribery case involving top Azerbaijani officials has complicated relations between Washington and the resource-rich Caucasus state.
Earlier this month, a New York court unsealed an indictment against Swiss lawyer Hans Bodmer for allegedly paying bribes to senior figures in Baku to ensure a favorable outcome in the privatization of state-owned oil company SOCAR. Several media reports have stated that both President Heidar Aliyev and his son Ilham, former deputy head of SOCAR and a presidential candidate, received payments from Bodmer.
"Azerbaijan has emerged as a key [U.S.] ally in the strategically important Caucasus region," says Cohen, although the indictment may cause relations to assume a lower profile for a while. Many in Washington believe strong ties with the Alievs are in the best strategic and economic interests of the United States and that the ruling family offers the best option for maintaining stability in Azerbaijan.
Cohen says, "Over the longer haul, however, the [Alievs'] association with corruption, which has been enhanced by the Bodmer indictment, can prove a liability for U.S. goals." The development of an open, civil society is often considered the best way to ensure long-term stability. But the process has been slow in Azerbaijan, as in many former Soviet states, and Cohen says some analysts believe continued U.S. support for the Alievs may ultimately undermine Azerbaijan's gradual process of democratization.
London's "The Economist" magazine this week says Eastern and Central Europe are digging in their heels and toughening up ahead of European Union accession in May 2004. Changes to EU processes proposed by the draft constitution look set to whittle away at the influence wielded by new and smaller members while favoring more powerful members like France and Germany.
Under today's rules, every member country, no matter the size, nominates a full voting member to the European Commission. The draft proposes capping the number of voting commissioners at 15. Other proposed changes to the EU Council of Ministers, which votes on new laws, would allow for a simple majority to carry a vote if they represent 60 percent of the EU population.
Poland and Spain want to keep the current system of voting that favors small and medium-sized nations, which allows Poland to have almost as many votes as Germany with only half the population.
"The Economist" says, "Worryingly for the Central Europeans, this rift over the constitution pits them against Germany, their biggest trading partner and their ally in the past, which wants the draft constitution adopted intact." Even so, "a more combative atmosphere in the EU may yet be a good thing if it leads the new members to toughen themselves up, economically and politically."
Central Europeans today "have more confidence in their economic competitiveness than in their political readiness. Though poor, they reckon they have more flexible economies and more growth potential than their neighbors to the west."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Vladimir Socor of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies says at next week's summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush should "use the occasion to make clear that the dissolution of the Soviet Union is final and irreversible."
Bush must deliver "three important messages" to Putin. First, that Moscow "should stop ongoing attempts to resubjugate Georgia and Moldova." Secondly, that "there will be no Russian monopoly on the transit of Caspian oil and gas to Europe." And finally, Putin must be told "that it is inadmissible to corral Ukraine and Belarus into a Russian-led 'Eurasian Economic Union' that restores Moscow's control over this part of Europe, on NATO's and the EU's new frontier."
Putin has attempted to reassert control over vast tracts of the former Soviet empire, says Socor. The Kremlin "is practically annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia," pressuring Georgia to end its security agreements with the U.S. and NATO, and setting up economic blocs "from Belarus and Ukraine to Central Asia."
But Socor says Putin knows "that he can only win in those countries through Western default." Socor warns that a Kremlin "victory on these fronts would undermine the post-Cold War status quo in Europe; increase Western dependence on Russian energy deliveries; and enable Moscow to prevent post-Soviet countries from joining U.S.-led coalitions when Russia disapproves of the operation."
The current edition of "The Economist" weekly discusses Baltic accession to the European Union in light of Estonia's 14 September referendum, in which voters elected to join the European bloc by a rather slim margin of 2-to-1.
The doubts in the minds of many Baltic citizens stem from both from "crude" parallels drawn between EU membership and domination by the Soviet Union and "to serious worries about what EU rules will do to the economic flexibility and low trade barriers that have helped the country prosper."
Estonian polls also indicate that the benefits of EU membership have failed to convince the poorest segments of society. In June and leading up to the referendum, less than half said they wanted to join. In Latvia, most have said they support EU membership. But most noncitizens, accounting for one-fifth of the population and dominated by Russians and ethnic Slavs, say they would vote against it -- if they could.
These groups "have been the biggest losers" of the Baltics' EU bid. The Russian-Baltic border regions "remain backwaters, attracting little investment and EU accession funds." What funds there are mostly go to projects to aid integration with the West. Small farmers "are equally worried about how they will fare under EU quotas and standards and against the Union's subsidized agro-industry."
"The Economist" says there is "little wonder" that these people "remain unconvinced that joining the EU is a good thing. Now that the Baltics are about to attain that long-sought goal, they must make it worthwhile for everyone."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
"The New York Times" in an editorial today discusses U.S. President George W. Bush's admission this week (17 September) that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of 11 September 2001. Several justifications were given ahead of the war in Iraq, the most "persuasive" of which was that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Hussein posed a global threat. But this rational "has fallen flat since the weapons have failed to turn up."
The paper says: "Plenty of evidence has emerged that Mr. Hussein was a bloody despot who deserved to be ousted for the sake of his beleaguered people. But recent polls suggest that the American public is not as enthusiastic about making sacrifices to help the Iraqis as about making sacrifices to protect the United States against terrorism. The temptation to hint at a connection with September 11 that did not exist must have been tremendous."
If Bush is really intent on not repeating the mistakes made in Vietnam, he should learn from history, it says. "The poison of Vietnam sprang from a political establishment that was unwilling to level with the American people about what was happening overseas. Stark honesty is the best weapon Mr. Bush can employ in maintaining public confidence in his leadership."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, LE MONDE:
In a contribution in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph," France's "Le Monde," and other publications, former Presidents Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Arpad Goncz of Hungary, and Lech Walesa of Poland call on Europe and the rest of the democratic world to show concrete support for Cuban dissidents, political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and their families.
Earlier this year, the regime of Fidel Castro imprisoned 75 members of the Cuban opposition. More than 40 members of the Varela project -- which calls for freedom of speech and assembly, free elections, and the release of political prisoners -- were sentenced, along with 20 journalists and other figures, by "mock trials to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years, merely for daring to express an opinion other than the official one."
The former Eastern European leaders says this latest crackdown is "an expression of weakness and desperation" on the part of Castro's regime, which is weakening just as did the regimes behind the Iron Curtain at the end of the 1980s.
It is now "the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition," they write. Europe "ought to make it unambiguously clear that Castro is a dictator, and that for democratic countries a dictatorship cannot become a partner until it commences a process of political liberalization."
Europe's "peaceful transitions from dictatorship to democracy, first in Spain and later in the East, have been an inspiration for the Cuban opposition, so Europe should not hesitate now. Its own history obliges it to act."