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Western Press Review: EU Enlargement, The Yukos Controversy, And A Rejected Iraqi Peace Deal?

Prague, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An article from yesterday's "New York Times" alleging the U.S. administration rejected a last-minute peace deal from Iraq has revived debate in the press over the decision to go to war in Iraq. A report on EU enlargement released this week by the European Commission is also discussed, as is political turmoil in the Caucasus, and the ongoing controversy over Yukos and the Kremlin.


An article appearing in yesterday's "New York Times" has sparked renewed debate over the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. The article alleges that an 11th-hour peace offer from the Iraq's chief of intelligence services was rejected by the U.S. administration. The offer agreed to allow U.S. troops to search weapons sites, to turn over a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and contained a pledge to hold elections in Iraq.

But with U.S. forces poised to invade, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "seems not to have been serious about the idea of a coerced but peaceful solution at the very moment it may have been a realistic possibility." The paper points out that by March of this year, U.S. military preparations for an invasion were complete. And the Bush administration "was then showing little patience for diplomacy or anything else that might delay what it envisioned as a swift and easy military triumph, with jubilant Iraqis cheering American troops, a model Middle Eastern democracy rising in Baghdad, reconstruction paid for by Iraqi oil revenue and no lengthy military occupation."

But the mission in Iraq "has not worked out as planned." While there is still "no way of knowing whether war could or should have been avoided, or indeed whether [Iraq's] offer was genuine," the Bush administration "can be faulted for not making more of an effort to determine whether a satisfactory resolution of the weapons issue might have been achieved without war."


An "Irish Times" editorial says the report on EU enlargement released by the European Commission this week highlights "how deeply political are the consequences of this enlargement for the European continent." While the EC report criticizes many prospective members for falling behind on reforms, none of the 10 states scheduled to join in May 2004 was declared unfit to join.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and many former Soviet states regained their independence, joining the EU has been "a fundamental political objective" for many of them. The possibility of membership "has given them a detailed benchmark against which to measure their transformation into liberal democratic political systems and functioning market economies. This change would have been undertaken even if the EU had not existed; the fact that it does has made the task much more concrete and achievable." The paper calls it "a tribute to the political and economic leaderships of the acceding states" that they have so rapidly progressed "to the point where they are now set to become fully participating members of the EU."

The anticipation of enlargement "has been by far the most effective of the EU's foreign policy instruments since 1989," says "The Irish Times." "With the great exception of the Balkans, inter-state conflicts elsewhere in a reuniting Europe have been moderated and transformed by the prospect of joining the EU."


An editorial in today's "Financial Times" says the 10 states joining the EU in May of next year "have had to achieve an extraordinary amount in both economic and administrative preparation to be ready for accession," particularly in the former Soviet states of Central and Eastern Europe. Transformation "is visible across the region," the "FT" says. "But they have not yet reached the finishing line."

Poland always promised to be the most difficult case, as it has "the most intractable economic and structural problems." The European Commission report released this week suggests the Polish government has failed to keep up the pace of reform. "These are serious charges, and require urgent attention in Warsaw."

The "FT" says Poland did not take advantage "of a gradual improvement in the economy to curb its own spending and focus its resources on the most important areas." Reform is needed in social security spending, privatization and administration, while "urgent action is needed in the agricultural sector." Moreover, it has yet to institute the needed veterinary and sanitation standards necessary to ensure access to EU markets for Polish farm products.

The "FT" acknowledges that these problems "are transitional, not permanent. But that is no reason for the Polish government to relax."


An editorial in the "Financial Times" says U.S. President George W. Bush's speech yesterday may have been aimed at trying "to convince an anxious public that, even if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq," the bloody and expensive mission there has "the noble aim of promoting Arab democracy." Bush's speech focused on his desire to see democracy reign across the planet, even while it admitted "to a historic failure in U.S. and Western policy."

Throughout the Cold War and continuing today, the United States has "sought stability through regimes that did not care for their people's political liberty." But instead of buying the security it desired, "all the U.S. had gained was the anger and frustrations of a region falling behind in prosperity." Even after the attacks of 11 September 2001 highlighted the resentment many around the world feel toward U.S. policy, Washington has often continued to choose political stability over civic liberty.

For its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. set up military bases in several authoritarian Central Asian states and struck deals with autocratic regional rulers. "This associates it with internal repression by governments there, just as the U.S. was tarred by cozying up to authoritarian anti-communist regimes during the Cold War." In the prosecution of its war on terrorism, Washington has been ready for governments worldwide to "cut legal corners."

The "FT" says Bush's calls for freedom and democracy to prevail across the globe "would carry more weight if he frankly addressed some of the trade-offs he has made in favor of security over freedom, and promised to redress the balance."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" describes yesterday's speech by U.S. President George W. Bush on the need for democracy in the Middle East as "almost visionary." But the paper says only when the people of the Middle East themselves implement the most fundamental elements of democracy and freedom will they be in a position to overcome poverty and deal with military despots and theocratic suppression. "Islam, like all other great religions, is in this position," says the commentary. But the paper adds, "modernization does not mean becoming Western."

Many Muslims will agree with the speech, which the "FAZ" says indicates Washington is going through a "learning process." However, observers will of course question what these acknowledgements mean in practical terms. "Muslim intellectuals interested in democracy and pluralism -- not to mention the general public -- are reluctant to justify those they see as suppressors, since they view the politicians in Washington as arrogant and one-sided. Ultimately, says the paper, this view will have to change.


This week's edition of "The Economist" says the strategic location and energy reserves of the Caucasus have made it increasingly relevant globally, and yet the region continues to be subject to "internal and political strife that could flare at any moment."

Azerbaijan's 15 October election, which ushered Ilham Aliyev into the presidency to succeed his ailing father, was "blatantly rigged." Georgia's 2 November parliamentary elections were "also fraudulent, though less so." Legitimate or not, these political changes "herald new uncertainties."

The Caucasus' "'energy corridor' should enrich the region," "The Economist" says. But if President-elect Aliyev "cannot control the corrupt ruling cliques" and fails to funnel the money into national education and development, widespread, and increasing unrest could follow as Azerbaijanis react to being shortchanged on the promised benefits from their country's oil resources.

Russia also poses a problem, the magazine says. Although it now "meddles less overtly," it is seeking to increase its economic influence in the region. It continues to be interested in maintaining a weak leadership in Tbilisi.

"The Economist" says both countries "need leaders whom the people actually voted for, and who are not in thrall to other forces. In Baku, the opposition complains that foreign observers did not criticize the election harshly enough, and that the oil firms would rather prop up the existing regime than deal with the uncertainty of a new one." In Tbilisi, they say Washington is "too soft" on Shevardnadze. The magazine concludes that "Nobody seems to know how to promote democracy" in the region.


France's "Le Figaro" carries an analysis by Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in which he says the arrest of former Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii has plunged Russia into a deep political crisis. Nothing less is at stake than Russia's fragile democracy, Aslund says.

The charges against Khodorkovskii, ranging from misdealings during the privatization of the 1990s and tax evasion, are as ill-founded as they are biased, Aslund says. Khodorkovskii was only using the processes widespread in Russia at the time. President Vladimir Putin's real problem with Khodorkovskii is that he is too powerful and independent for the narrow political order Putin wants to see implemented.

Since Putin came to power, Aslund says he has concentrated on four main political policies. The first three -- reform of the market economy and the Russian legal system, as well as adopting a pragmatic foreign policy -- have been widely welcomed. The fourth, pursuing a "managed democracy," has been tolerated only by virtue of the political stability it brings. However, this form of "democracy" now threatens to undermine Putin's three political successes.

Khodorkovskii is the fourth Russian businessman to be driven out of the business world by the authorities. Four independent television stations have been taken over to various degrees by the state, and no criticism of Putin is allowed in the major media outlets. The main polling organizations are also now under Kremlin control. Local elections are regularly manipulated, often by excluding opposition candidates. Aslund says the trend in Russia is evident: it is headed for an authoritarian system.

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