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Western Press Review: Chechnya's 'One-Candidate' Election And EU Policy In The Caucasus

Prague, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics in focus today in the major news dailies is the war in Chechnya, as voters in the breakaway republic head to the polls on Sunday (5 October) for a controversial presidential election. Some commentators accuse world leaders of a certain moral blindness when it comes to the conflict.

Also under discussion are the European Union's deficient policy in the Caucasus, the political legacy of the October 1993 power struggle between the Russian parliament and the Kremlin, and the ongoing international presence in Bosnia, eight years after the breakup of Yugoslavia.


"The Christian Science Monitor" in an editorial says that when Chechen voters head to the polls this weekend, "they won't be voting in a free and fair election -- they'll be rubber-stamping Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand-picked candidate for president. That's hardly a recipe for peace."

Several international human rights organizations, including some based in Moscow, as well as European governments and the U.S., have accused the Russian Army "of gross human rights violations." Chechen separatists are also "guilty of their own serious violations, and their cause -- independence, not an Islamic state -- is tainted by the presence among them of a few Islamist terrorists."

But as this four-year-old war for independence drags on, the editorial says, Russian voters "know little of what goes on in Chechnya these days. The Kremlin has managed to silence most of the critical media voices in the country." Moscow may claim to seek an eventual peace, but "[until] the Kremlin realizes military force alone won't settle the issue, and starts talks with a broad spectrum of Chechen representatives, peace will continue to seem a long way off."


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," author Andre Glucksmann says, "there are deaths that weigh no more than a feather." Entire populations "are absent from our concerns and from our television screens."

The Chechens, for example, "live in absolute solitude, surrendered to [a] massacring Russian army. And no one -- not the United Nations, not world public opinion, not any one of the democracies that are so proud of their principles -- cries bloody murder."

Glucksmann says neither the conflict in Iraq nor the Palestinian plight "is as cruel" as the one in Chechnya. Regarding Chechnya's elections on Sunday, Glucksmann says: "No one lends them legitimacy. Not even the Kremlin."

Moscow's candidate, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, enjoys the support of only 13 percent of the population, while all of his serious challengers "[have] backed off or are forbidden to run."

With these elections, Glucksmann says, the Kremlin is trying to send three messages. First, that the war in Chechnya "will be fought to the finish." Second, that if Chechnya's Russian population does not obey orders, "[they] too will be treated as rebels." Finally, to the rest of the world, the Kremlin is saying, "Get lost!"

"Thirsty for Russian oil and natural gas, the European Union swallows its principles and rolls over," writes Glucksmann. "Washington, partly out of strategy [and] partly out of cynicism, forgets the support" Russia gave Iraq's Saddam Hussein. So today, he says, "Putin's hands are free."


"The Moscow Times" reprints a piece from the U.S. magazine "The Nation" by Matt Bivens, a correspondent who covered the war in Chechnya. Bivens recounts in detail many of the condemnations and threats once made by U.S. President George W. Bush regarding Russia's conduct of the Chechen war.

Bush heatedly denounced Kremlin policies for "killing women and children, leaving orphans and refugees..." He once suggested cutting off International Monetary Fund aid to Russia and ending import-export loans until Moscow sought a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Thus, Bivens says when Bush met Russian President Vladimir Putin at Camp David last week, surely he would have told Putin "exactly what he thinks of a man who for years has tolerated federal death squads that 'disappear' and kill his own citizens," whose government "is moving into refugee camps, denying the people there water and electricity, removing latrines, pistol-whipping women...."

And yet all that took place at Camp David was a "vague call" for respect for human rights that could "easily be interpreted as a rebuke to Putin's opponents, and not to the Kremlin's death squads."

According to the new Bush position, it is now "terrorists spreading all the chaos and destruction, not Russian carpet-bombing." Bivens asks disdainfully, who could possibly know the Chechen plight "as well as Bush does, and speak out on it as ardently as he has -- and then, when it serves his ends to do so, shrug and pretend it doesn't matter?"


An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" recalls that in November 1993, then U.S. President Bill Clinton "said the United States would send troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina for 12 months. Nearly eight years later, 1,500 U.S. troops are still there, separating groups that hate each other and providing a valuable lesson in the difficulty of rebuilding a nation wracked by war."

The paper says the U.S. experience in Bosnia "should prepare Americans to see their forces in Iraq years from now, even if other nations change their minds and contribute substantial numbers of troops."

Today, although ethnic tensions have been "quiet," the country's Croats, Muslims, and Serbs "live apart from each other, and last year a multiethnic political party lost elections to parties representing the three separate communities."

Bosnia has received more than $5 billion in foreign aid, "but unemployment is around 50 percent in some areas and dependence on outside assistance shows no signs of lessening."

Bosnia should realize it must soon stand on its own, the paper says. U.S. troop patrols today "help enforce the peace, and NATO nations provide the bulk of the troops and much of the foreign aid." Bosnia is "a good example of international cooperation," and any "hard-and-fast deadline to remove troops and reduce aid wouldn't benefit the country now. But Bosnians should set their own timetable, and the end [of dependency] should be in sight -- sooner, rather than later."


In her monthly column for "The Washington Post," Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center discusses the events of October 1993, when "a months-long standoff" between Russia's parliament and the Kremlin erupted into violence.

The legislators of the Supreme Soviet had "blocked virtually all" of the Kremlin's reform initiatives, initiated under then President Boris Yeltsin. "In late September, Yeltsin issued a decree disbanding the legislature. The deputies ignored it and barricaded themselves inside the 'White House,'" as the parliament building was known. They then "declared Yeltsin deposed and claimed full power in the country."

Yeltsin gave the order to shell the White House, an act that resulted in the deaths of some 150 people, most of them bystanders.

But the resort to force "dramatically weakened Yeltsin's popular support." Former supporters "distanced themselves from him, reluctant to share responsibility with the president who had shed blood to defend Russian democracy." Yeltsin himself then "failed to invigorate the reforms" that had formerly been stymied by the legislature.

Lipman says one consequence of these events is that "it has left the Russian people passive and uninvolved in the reform process, uncertain about their national goals or values, unwilling to think clearly about the Soviet or recent Russian past."

Under President Vladimir Putin, "[democratic] institutions and independent media were deemed redundant and even an impediment. It was easy to get them out of the way -- the society didn't care."


Writing in France's "Liberation," columnist Patric Sabatier says after six months of fruitless searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only one thing is clear -- that when the war on Baghdad commenced, Iraq did not present an imminent threat. Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons were a mere "phantasm," and the threat posed by his country could certainly have been countered with intensified UN inspections. "There really was no casus belli against Iraq," says Sabatier.

The fact that these weapons remain undiscovered demonstrates how "dangerous and unacceptable" the doctrine of "preventive war" is. The decision to attack a country considered threatening can rely only on reliable information and a nonideological analysis of the data.

With the war in Iraq, both the U.S. White House and Britain's Downing Street either "lied deliberately to justify war by exaggerating the threat or made a monstrous error of evaluation, on the basis of partial, biased, or even totally erroneous information." Whether the misinformation was intentional or accidental, there is cause for concern, he says.

There are other dictatorships now brandishing the threat of a nuclear arsenal, and these weapons are more real than Saddam Hussein's ever were. But the precedent set by the misjudgment in Iraq has made it much tougher to take up these new strategic challenges.


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Vladimir Socor of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies says the South Caucasus's energy reserves and transport potential are important to Europe's future energy security. Thus, it is in Europe's interest to ensure stability in the region, including stemming regional conflicts and encouraging institutional reform.

But thus far, "a guiding EU vision" for the region is lacking, says Socor. The European Union "has the interest, political influence and economic resources to promote stability and security in the region." And "Brussels itself recognizes that the prospect [of] accession is the EU's most effective stimulus for conflict resolution and internal reforms in countries within the EU's new neighborhood."

But the EU has excluded Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia from both its Wider Europe and the New Neighbors Initiative, designed to facilitate broader international cooperation with an expanding EU. These programs "variously include all the countries from Morocco to Syria, as well as Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia, but incredibly leave the South Caucasus out."

Moreover, the EU "contents itself with a modest role in pipeline and other transit projects," he says, although European nations "are the main prospective consumers of Caspian oil and gas."

Socor recommends that the EU work to reinvigorate relations with the South Caucasus by scheduling regular bi- and multilateral meetings and giving these nations clear and "positive signals regarding eventual accession prospects."


Austria's "Die Presse" discusses tomorrow's meeting in Rome, where a controversial draft constitution for the enlarged, 25-member EU is due to be finalized. The paper asks the crucial question, "What is going to happen to this hodgepodge of national interests, this rough-hewn monster made up of much political will and little political wisdom?"

The original idea underlying the constitution was to foster a more tightly knit EU community. It was supposed to "define common values and goals and the way to best achieve this."

Unfortunately, says the commentary, "the EU member governments are not even clear what to expect from this political structure. The only thing they do know is that they each want as much power and influence as possible."

In the paper's opinion, the questions should have first been asked, What do we actually want from Europe? Does Europe want an independent monitor of fair competition, or to show leadership in a globalizing economy? Does it want a political union that will not make it look old or unwieldy in the eyes of the U.S.?

If this is the case, "Die Presse" says Europe must set aside individual national interests.

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