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Western Press Review: Central Europe's Misleading Economies, The Geneva Accord, And Chechen Politics

Prague, 16 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed by the media today are NATO's tough stance with Bulgaria; Central Europe's misleading economic indicators; the Geneva Accord, a new plan for Mideast peace; assessing the Chechen political situation after two recent polls; and China's successful launch of a man into space.


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" advises those who consider today's NATO alliance "a mere talkshop that has lost its raison d'etre" to consider the strong stance the alliance has taken in recent weeks with membership candidate Bulgaria.

NATO has warned Bulgaria that it could have its candidacy suspended or have classified information denied it as a NATO member if it appoints a former KGB official to the post of national security adviser. Becoming a NATO ally that is denied classified information "is hardly a distinction Bulgaria would like to have," the editorial says.

Confirming Brigo Asparuhov, who spent two decades as a senior official in what the paper calls "one of the most pro-Soviet governments in the Warsaw Pact," to such a prominent intelligence post "would hardly be fitting behavior for a NATO ally," as the United States, Britain, and other NATO members have made clear to Sofia.

Bulgaria "could play a strong role in the Balkans and in the Black Sea" as a NATO ally, and is potentially a strategically important route for transferring fossil-fuel resources.

"All the more reason for NATO to have been firm with Bulgaria now about the standards an ally is expected to uphold, especially in so sensitive a [post]. In its insistence that senior security officials be beyond reproach, NATO is demonstrating that the alliance is a serious military organization and plans to remain that way."


In a contribution to the "Financial Times," Matthew Olex-Szczytowski of the European Investment Bank and Jacek Rostowski of Budapest's Central European University say Central Europe is doing better economically than most formal indicators show. As eight countries in the region ready themselves to join the EU in May 2004, "the overly gloomy economic data [from] the region must be challenged."

Perhaps the most serious shortcoming in gauging the region's growth is "the massive under-reporting of gross domestic product, largely because of failure to account for shadow economic activity." The authors cite figures from Linz University economist Friedrich Schneider, who estimates the 2000-01 shadow economy in the eight accession countries at about 28 percent of official GDP. It would thus follow that the region's shadow economy generates more than $116 billion a year -- an amount equal to the GDP of an extra Czech Republic and a Slovakia.

Central European accession nations "are more prosperous, productive and politically stable, and thus better investment targets," than the figures usually indicate. And yet the positive trends "are rarely recognized in the region itself, for reasons rooted in the convoluted psychology of the post-communist elites." Many are plagued by a pervasive, "unspoken culture of failure and despair" and self-created "ideologies of 'crisis.'" Moreover, "[it] is politically incorrect to praise success."

The Western press "is all too ready to echo the woeful themes that are repeated in the eight's own lugubrious media. We deserve a truer picture of these messy but dynamic economies."


"The Boston Globe" in an editorial discusses the emergence of the so-called Geneva Accord, an alternative plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Against the region's ongoing "backdrop of tragic irrationality," the paper says "it is good news that prominent -- albeit out-of-power -- Israeli doves have negotiated a peace agreement [with] Palestinian political figures close to Yasser Arafat."

The framework of the new plan in many ways resembles that drawn up by negotiations in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001. Both plans call for Palestinian refugees to either repatriate to a new Palestinian state, settle in a third country, or remain where they are now "and receive financial compensation." But there would be no "right of return" to homes now located in Israeli areas without Israel's approval. The "right of return" issue is a contentious one, and has often been the "ultimate deal-breaker" in past negotiations.

Israel, for its part, would give up all of the Gaza Strip and almost all of the West Bank to a Palestinian state. A few Israeli settlements would remain and the Palestinians would receive an equal amount of land in compensation. Jerusalem would be divided and the Temple Mount would be ceded to a demilitarized Palestine that would be "obligated to disarm all militias."

The Geneva Accord proves there are viable negotiating partners on both sides, and that both are willing to make tough concessions. The new plan, "negotiated by doves, shows that peace is there for the making."


In a contribution to "The Moscow Times," Robert Bruce Ware of Southern Illinois University discusses the results of two recent votes in Chechnya. A 23 March referendum approved a new Chechen constitution by a "suspiciously high margin," says Ware. But he adds that since many Chechens supported the referendum in the interests of bringing social stability, the results were "probably exaggerated, but not erroneous."

Unfortunately, he says, the constitution is "fundamentally flawed." Chechen society is traditionally divided among "rival groups with no tradition of an overarching political structure. Chechnya does not need a president, who inevitably will come from one of these groups and will thus alienate members of the other groups. Instead, Chechnya needs a collegial executive body and other institutions that promote power-sharing among the members of its strongest groups."

Chechnya's much-criticized presidential election earlier this month (5 October) was also a loss. The lack of challengers to Kremlin candidate Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov squandered any political legitimacy, and Chechens were denied a chance "to take control of their lives."

Moscow, too, "lost the opportunity to demonstrate to the people of Chechnya, and to the world, that Chechens are free to choose for themselves." And Chechnya as a whole lost another opportunity to institute a much-needed system of power sharing.

But after two failed votes, Ware says Chechnya "may still be saved by the fact that most Chechens have lost interest in anything that smacks of violence, extremism and instability. Their exhaustion may be the political ballast that ultimately prevents civil war and gradually imposes social order."


In light of yesterday's successful space launch by China, a commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" notes the contrast between the tendency in Europe today toward integration and the extremely nationalist bent in Asia, which prompts "competition between the states and instability among the spheres of influence."

Asia has its extremes. On the one hand, there is a strong Japan, even though it is currently contending with economic problems. On the other hand there is China, with its ambition to become a superpower. Then there is India, which the paper says is gravely underestimated by the West.

These powers express their various rivalries through their military and technological capabilities. In launching its first man into space yesterday, Peking is emphasizing its claim to be on a par with Washington and Moscow, an ambition which is also tied to its desire to play a leading role in Asia.

The commentary says it would be vastly preferable if instead of competing in a nuclear arms race, these regional rivals concentrated "on the peaceful conquest of space."


Marie Jego of "Le Monde" writes from Baku on yesterday's presidential election in Azerbaijan, which saw Ilham Aliyev elected in a landslide to succeed his father, Heydar Aliyev. The way is now open for the first dynastic succession of the post-Soviet era, Jego says.

To those charging there were voting irregularities, the younger Aliyev responded that he was certain the election would be "transparent and free." However, none of the seven challengers was able to compete with the superior means at Aliyev's disposal. His portraits dominated the streets of Baku. His tours through the countryside were accompanied by gifts to the population, such as television sets and even apartments. Songs were publicly sung praising his glory.

Moscow has been paying close attention to this transfer of power, says Jego. Russian President Vladimir Putin and several members of his administration have indicated their support for the Aliyev succession. The Kremlin has long sought to improve ties with its sister republic to the south.

Baku's dynastic transfer of power was also greeted by Washington, the State Department describing the elections as in accordance with Azerbaijan's constitution. Representatives of Anglo-American companies involved in oil exploration also indicated they were in favor of political continuity in Baku.

An unstable Azerbaijan would jeopardize the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, now under construction. Oil exploration may promise a "brilliant future" for Azerbaijanis, Jego says, but today 49 percent still live below the poverty line on less that $25 a month.


A commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" looks at the political turmoil that persists in Serbia. The government in Belgrade wants to stay in power and is sticking to the old habit of playing "manipulative power politics [and] disregarding constitutional rights," says the paper.

The Serbian government is "scandalously ignoring democratic institutions" and, in response to the threat of a no-confidence vote, "the powerful are cynically ignoring parliament."

The still-unsettled status of Kosovo and Montenegro is a factor in this tenuous state of political affairs, the paper says. But even more importantly, this situation persists "because of a woeful lack of respect for state structures [and] for the rights of institutions."

In addition, persistent turmoil continues to reign within the Democratic Party of the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated on 12 March.

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