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Western Press Review: Azerbaijan's 'Stolen' Election; Challenges To NATO

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics addressed by media commentary today and over the weekend are the effects of a future European Union defense structure on the NATO alliance, Azerbaijan's presidential succession and alleged voting irregularities, the perils of conducting investigative journalism in Russia, and U.S. policy on Iraq.


Controversial elections in Azerbaijan on 15 October saw Ilham Aliyev overwhelmingly elected to the presidency to succeed his ailing father, President Heidar Aliyev. International observers reported widespread irregularities with the vote, which was followed by days of street protests by the political opposition and its supporters.

In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch remarks that many observers "in Western policy circles" viewed the dynastic Aliyev succession "as critical to the stability of billions of dollars of investments in the country's energy sector." But the ensuing street protests "should make them think otherwise," Bouckaert says.

Azerbaijan's government "clearly stole the election." And yet, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe "took due note" of the many irregularities, then issued an "alarmingly upbeat" assessment of the election process.

Bouckaert says the Aliyev government "has a terrible human rights record, and a long history of imprisoning its opponents, rigging elections and breaking up public protests with excessive violence." But the international community "seems to want to wish [this history] away so it can get on with business with the oil-rich country's government."

The world "must not passively accept a violently stolen election," the author says. "Azerbaijanis are justifiably tired of the corruption and arbitrariness of years of rule under the current government. They are growing increasingly suspicious of the West and its unwillingness to be tough on the Aliyev clan."

Bouckaert warns that allowing the Azerbaijani government to "steal its election will embolden other governments to do the same."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says plans to create a European Union military force threaten NATO and trans-Atlantic relations. Setting up "an independent European defense organization, with a separate headquarters, aims to effect a trans-Atlantic break-up," the paper writes.

Militarily, a separate EU military structure "cannot but sap NATO of its strength, as it would borrow scant resources from an already strained common lot." The paper remarks that NATO is "the only official linkage structurally binding the West."

Politically, the four nations most supportive of the EU force -- Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France -- have "made it clear by their timing that their aim is to challenge U.S. leadership in the West. The plan to set up a separate headquarters was hatched in April at the height of acrimony over the Iraq war."

The editorial advises EU member nations tempted to go it alone militarily that they "should consider long and hard whether they want to inhabit a world where the U.S. has turned truly isolationist after being deserted by its allies." Those who consider an America "that trips over itself to attain UN recognition of facts on the ground in Iraq" to be isolationist "should ask themselves if they would be happier with a recluse giant freed from the counsel of friends."


Writing in "The Washington Post," Margaret Paxson discusses the deaths of two pioneering journalists in Tolyatti, a city some 1,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

In 1996, the "Tolyattinskoye obozrenie" newspaper made its debut, soon becoming the city's "lone independent voice." Led by editor Valerii Ivanov, the paper reported on corruption at AvtoVAZ, Russia's largest car manufacturer, as well as focusing on "local disputes over forest resources, investigations of oligarchic connections to the city government, exposure of drug trafficking [and] reports on mafia leaders." Paxson says an editor makes choices every day "about whether to voice some truth. [Valerii] Ivanov chose again and again to voice them."

There were problems with the law, as well as from others who wanted the newspaper silenced. On 29 April 2002, the 33-year-old Ivanov was fatally shot while walking to his car, parked near his apartment building.

A longtime staff member of the paper and a friend of Ivanov's, Aleksei Sidorov, took over the editor's post. Under him, Paxson says the stories, the hard work, and the "truth-telling" continued. But on 9 October, as he walked toward his apartment, Sidorov was fatally stabbed. He was 31.

Paxson says in the wake of these killings, "one must wonder what it is about Russia that produces this kind of selfless [and] clear-eyed courage." Brave people are willing to "take on the mantle. And they are extinguished: journalists, reformers, environmentalists and citizens demanding change. How many more will be killed?" she asks. "When will Russians gain some assurances from the rule of law in their land that these sacrifices are not in vain?"


In a contribution to the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," strategic studies analyst Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University discusses the unanimous passage on 16 October of UN Resolution 1511, sanctioning a U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Much of the resolution's wording is meaningless and "vapid," Cohen says. It "APPEALS [author's emphasis] for strengthened efforts to be benevolent, and EMPHASIZES, REMINDS, REQUESTS and AFFIRMS all manner of good things. However, it spends not one euro, equips no soldier and dispatches no relief worker."

But the resolution is, of course, less important for its wording than for the fact that it provides international support for the U.S.-led occupation and reconstruction effort. Its passage allowed nations that opposed the war to mend relations with the U.S., and provided others with useful diplomatic cover for governments supporting U.S. efforts amid popular domestic opposition.

As the world's hyperpower, the United States is "feared, resented, suspected. By garnering the legitimacy -- evanescent and limited -- of a Security Council resolution, it diminishes, modestly but sensibly, some of that opposition," says Cohen. It is far better for a government "to show a courteous desire for the support of others than to revel in the dubious pleasures of sauntering alone in dark places."


In a contribution to this British daily, author Lutz Kleveman discusses the links between U.S. energy interests and Central Asia. The Caspian Sea is home to the world's largest untapped fossil-fuel deposits. And Washington's fervent interest in the region "is designed to wean the U.S. off its dependence on the Arab-dominated OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] cartel, which is using its near-monopoly position as pawn and leverage against industrialized countries."

But in "a desperate effort to decrease its dependence" on Saudi and other Mideast oil suppliers, Washington has been "wooing some of the [Central Asian] region's worst dictators," Kleveman says. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's regime "brutally suppresses any opposition and Islamic groups." The U.S. State Department acknowledges that Uzbek security services use torture as a matter of "routine." Nevertheless, last year the Karimov regime received $500 million in U.S. aid for stationing a U.S. air base at Khanabad.

Kleveman predicts such concessions will ultimately undermine U.S. interests. "[Disgusted] with the U.S.'s cynical alliances with their corrupt and despotic rulers, the region's impoverished populaces increasingly embrace virulent anti-Americanism and militant Islam."

America's "energy imperialism" in the region causes resentment that "makes it ever easier for terrorist groups to recruit angry young men." Kleveman concludes by remarking, "It is all very well to pursue oil interests, but is it worth mortgaging [U.S.] security to do so?"


An article in "Le Monde" discusses Romania's 19 October referendum on a new constitution, designed to harmonize the country's laws with those of the European Union. Final results are not yet in, but observers are reasonably certain the constitution will be adopted, despite early fears that turnout would not reach the 50 percent needed to validate the vote.

An estimated 54.4 percent of Romanians went to the polls after appeals by local priests and other public figures. In some areas, voters were eventually mobilized by promises from city hall to cover heating bills for a month, or threats that pensions would only be paid to those that had voted. Elsewhere, only voters could take part in a lottery involving a dozen televisions.

The French daily cites some observers as noting that Romanian legislation explicitly forbids promising material benefits to convince citizens to vote.

The new laws will notably allow Romanian citizens to be elected to the European Parliament and Europeans to serve as officials in local Romanian administrations. Romanian membership is foreseen in 2007. But "Le Monde" says the adoption of the new constitution does not guarantee that Romania will become an EU member. Bucharest must still implement many reforms before joining the bloc, the paper says.