Accessibility links

Breaking News

Western Press Review: A New Spate Of Baghdad Bombings, Russian Politics, And An Oligarch's Arrest

Prague, 28 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of media commentary and analysis today finds much discussion of internal Russian politics, following the 25 October arrest of Yukos energy company CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, an arrest many observers believe to be politically motivated. The focus today is also on Iraq, in the wake of a series of bombings in recent days throughout Baghdad; Britain's rigid new restrictions on asylum-seekers; and why one columnist is beginning to think he misses the Cold War.


An "Irish Times" editorial says the multiple bomb attacks in Baghdad yesterday show "that the large force of troops occupying Iraq is not capable of providing the everyday security from which confidence for reconstruction will flow." The paper says, "Despite the greater international legitimacy and support from the United Nations and last week's donor conference in Madrid, yesterday's attacks demonstrate that the resistance forces are determined to make the work of agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross more difficult."

The paper continues: there is "too little continuity" in security and Iraq's public administration, despite progress in restoring the police force. The fact that two new Iraqi police headquarters were also targeted yesterday "demonstrates there is a substantial political motivation behind the resistance, as well as a capacity to co-ordinate attacks."

The paper suggests reinstating members of the former Iraqi Army and the former public administration, "most of which spontaneously dissolved as the coalition forces advanced last March. [This] would send a signal to ordinary Iraqis that sovereignty can be restored within a reasonable timetable." An Iraqi force, even one made up of Ba'athist-era soldiers, "would be better able to tackle the combination of Al-Qaeda and hard-line remnants of the previous regime the U.S. blames for these attacks."


An editorial in this British daily says Russian President Vladimir Putin strives to be seen as a man "leading his country to an independent, prosperous future." But "The Guardian" says at times some of his actions "resemble those of a modern-day tsar, ruthlessly determined to quash opponents in Chechnya [or] in the press by a relentless state onslaught."

Russia "is becoming richer and attracting the interest of foreign investors. Yet too many blunt, arbitrary assaults on the country's institutions and civil society will undermine faith in Russia's revival." The recent arrest of KhodorkovskII seems to be motivated by "extra-judicial" concerns. While the charges -- fraud and tax evasion -- are "serious," the "ferocity" of the Kremlin's offensive "is an indication that Mr. Khodorkovsky had strayed too far into the political realm."

Russia's so-called oligarchs have stirred resentment among the populace. Dubious privatization deals in the 1990s made a little over a dozen people very rich, but this "has not trickled down to the masses," the paper says. "In moving against the oligarchy [in] the form of Mr. Khodorkovsky, the Russian leader will pick up votes ahead of parliamentary elections in December and also potentially rid himself of a wealthy political foe before the presidential poll in March next year."

Putin has recognized that reform "cannot take place without re-establishing the state. But he must not fill the void with bad governance."


An editorial in "The Independent" says new measures put forth by British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) David Blunkett to tackle illegal immigration have done the near-impossible: "effectively ended the long-standing right to claim political asylum in the United Kingdom." While the "formal obligations" of the 1951 convention on granting political asylum remain, it is now "virtually impossible for victims of oppression to make use of them." Britain is now "one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to claim asylum."

A visa is required to enter the United Kingdom, but "claiming asylum is not a legitimate reason to visit the U.K. So a visa will be refused." If an asylum-seeker does manage to arrive in Britain with a false passport, "that will be sufficient grounds for deportation. This is true even if the regime has confiscated the asylum-seeker's real passport," the paper points out. "At every turn, a genuine refugee finds their path to safety in the U.K. blocked."

Thus many people attempt to enter Britain clandestinely. Some of these are "economic migrants, whose manpower [the] economy desperately needs." Others are "genuine victims of torture who have nothing left to live for in their homelands." But the paper says once they arrive in Britain, "They will all be treated equally unfairly, with a newly restricted right of appeal and no recourse to our human rights legislation."


In a contribution to "The Washington Post," Bruce Jackson of the "Project on Transitional Democracies" also writes about the Khodorkovskii arrest. He says in the past year, "independent media and major independent business owners in Russia have been put out of business by the strong-arm tactics of the special prosecutor and the newly vigilant Federal Security Service [FSB]." Khodorkovskii "made the fatal mistake of expressing political opinions and having the temerity to provide financial support to opposition parties."

Khodorkovskii's 25 October arrest "must be seen in the context of increasingly aggressive, military and extra-judicial actions in Ukraine, Moldova, the South Caucasus and Chechnya," Jackson says. Putin "has skillfully taken advantage" of Washington's preoccupation with the war on terrorism and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Now Moscow and the capitals of Eastern Europe are watching carefully to see how Washington responds to this latest crackdown," Jackson says.

He continues: "If the United States fails to take a hard line in response to such a high-visibility arrest," individuals in Russia's Defense Ministry and the FSB "will correctly conclude that there will be no meaningful response to the re-establishment of a neo-imperial sphere of influence in the new democracies to Russia's south and west."

He concludes: The U.S. administration's "well-intentioned Russian policy has failed. We must now recognize that there has been a massive suppression of human rights and the imposition of a de facto Cold War-type administration in Moscow."


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Arnold Beichman of the Hoover Institution drolly says that while it may sound "irrational" to some, he is beginning to miss the Cold War. He says as bad as things were back then, they are worse now under the fear of Islamist militancy.

"Admittedly," he says, "most people who live in Russia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czech [and Slovak republics], Bulgaria and the Baltic states wouldn't feel quite the same way. Yet today, even these liberated countries have to worry about Islamist terrorism because they all have Western embassies in their midst."

Beichman observes that even "[in] the worst days of the Cold War, [you] simply showed your ticket" at the airport "and marched onto the plane." No undressing -- removing shoes, belts, etc. -- or surrendering without a fuss any metal object deemed potentially threatening.

"Despite the ferocity of Soviet diplomacy, the West still engaged in cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union" throughout the half-century standoff. But the truly militant Islamists of today "are not interested in negotiations, summit meetings, detente agreements, cultural exchanges or non-aggression pacts, as we all were during the Cold War."

He writes: "We have gone from a world of bipolar quasi-stability to a world of bipolar anarchy. That transformation has affected our quality of life as the Cold War never did to those of us fortunate enough to have lived [on the other side of] the Iron Curtain."


Columnist Patrick Sabatier says one word -- "Vietnam" -- arouses the worst of American nightmares. And yet this word is now heard throughout Washington. Writing in France's daily "Liberation," Sabatier says two prominent U.S. senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat John Kerry, have begun to make the once-forbidden parallels between the conflict in Iraq and America's "lost cause" in Vietnam. Both men are veterans of the Vietnam War.

If the spirit of Vietnam is now being invoked, Sabatier says it is partly because U.S. forces on the banks of the Tigris river, as they once were on the Mekong, are facing a guerrilla offensive that is increasingly better organized, as escalating attacks of the past two days have shown. In Washington, meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush insists that everything is going well, much like his "blind or lying" predecessors of the Vietnam era, who insisted for years that one could see "the light at the end of the tunnel."

Certainly, a few hundred American soldiers killed to date in Iraq is much better than the hundreds of deaths a week in Vietnam, Sabatier says. And the Iraqi resistance is far from having the political support and strength the Vietnamese communists had. But the strategy bears some resemblance: to chase out all international nonmilitary organizations, such as the United Nations and Red Cross, and sow fear in all who collaborate with them. Sabatier says Iraq's resistance seeks to encircle and suffocate the occupation forces, like "drying up a pond in order to catch fish."