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Western Press Review: Bush's State Visit To Britain; Fostering Arab Democracy; And The Yukos Affair

Prague, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. President George W. Bush begins his four-day state visit to Britain today, several media commentators discuss political relations between and public perceptions of the two allies in light of the war in Iraq.

We also take a look at the weekend's (16 November) third round of elections in Serbia, which once again came up short of the 50 percent participation required to validate the ballot and elect a president. Fostering democratic reform in the Arab world is also discussed, as is Russia's own faltering democracy in the wake of the Yukos affair.


In the "International Herald Tribune," Philip Bowring says U.S. President George W. Bush's state visit to Britain this week "has already done more harm than good to relations" between the two allies. He predicts it will also serve to underscore two persistent divisions within British public opinion.

The first point of departure is Britain's ongoing debate over the wisdom of taking part in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Feelings on this issue have been heightened by events on the ground and the "almost total skepticism" with which Britons now perceive the prewar claim that Saddam Hussein's alleged -- and still unidentified -- weapons of mass destruction posed a grave threat to either Britain or the United States.

The second is the schism between how the British perceive America and how they view its president, George W. Bush. The majority displays a willingness "to give America the benefit of the doubt," says Bowring. But it is hard to find significant support among Britons for the current U.S. president. Bowring says Bush is widely perceived as lacking the proper "stature" and the "intelligent seriousness of purpose" desired in a U.S. president.

But Bowring says such sentiment in part stems from a British sense of "humiliation" at "[following] Bush's Iraq agenda to the letter." Bowring concludes that Bush's visit is likely to be a reminder of Britons' own "divisions over Iraq, and of their own blind following of Bush, rather than a celebration of the ties that bind the two nations."


"The New York Times" columnist William Safire says officials "on both side of the Atlantic [are] having second thoughts about this week's full-fledged state visit" by the U.S. president to Britain.

The official invitation was extended two years ago in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, notes Safire. But the visit now comes "at a time when both [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and President George W. Bush are being reviled in Europe for joining forces to overthrow a dangerous tyrant. Because finishing that job is costing more in blood and treasure than was foreseen, the anti-any-war crowd is up in arms."

But Blair "is determined to underscore what Winston Churchill called 'the special relationship' between the United States and its mother country." Nor is Bush feeling particularly "apologetic," says Safire. Interviews with the British press ahead of the trip found Bush refining the message he has been delivering in speeches -- that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is a necessary part of a larger vision of fostering human freedom around the world.

The British public will be interested to see what Blair's "unwavering" support of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq means for Britain's role as a bridge between the United States and Europe. U.S. concerns have recently been aroused over the formation of an independent European Union defense force, and a simmering U.S.-EU trade dispute seems likely to continue.

But Safire says this week in London, U.S. and British leaders will go through the official motions, "united in taking the political heat."


Columnist Cathy Young of "Reason" magazine discusses what she calls a series of "disturbing" events in Russia in a contribution to the Boston-based daily.

Most recently, on 6 November, Kremlin officials raided the offices of billionaire financier George Soros's Open Society Foundation, which donates millions to charitable and civic organizations in Russia. And the October arrest of Yukos oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii on tax-evasion and fraud charges was "another alarm signal from [President] Vladimir Putin's Russia," she says.

Khodorkovskii's arrest is widely suspected of being politically motivated, punishment for his funding of opposition parties. "No less disturbing than the arrest itself has been the handling of Khodorkovskii's case by Russia's so-called justice system," Young writes. Khodorkovskii has been denied bail, and under Russian law he can be held for two years before trial. His court hearings have been closed to the public, including journalists and Russian parliamentary deputies.

Young remarks that Khodorkovskii has been accused by some Russia observers of using his wealth "to undermine Russia's fledging political institutions by making opposition parties beholden to big business" for their support and funding.

Young says, "True enough, but in today's Russia, where civil society is still in its infancy and there are no real checks or balances in government, big business is -- like it or not -- the main counterweight to the power of the state."


Switzerland's "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" discusses the situation in Serbia where, for a third time, voters failed to elect a president due to turnout below the 50 percent minimum required by law.

The commentary describes the present political situation in Serbia by saying, "Serbia not only does not have a president but also no parliament, which was dissolved a few days prior to the vote. New legislative elections are not due until December. Moreover, there is still no new constitution. The current one dates back to the days of [former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic."

The paper continues: "For some time now, the ruling coalition has been in a shambles -- it is falling apart, [is] leaderless, [and is] lacking direction. Politicians accuse each other of corruption and waste their energy on irrelevant matters." Serbia's politicos largely "ignore the reform process. Without taking the country into consideration, they carry on with their internal power struggles, which are hindering Serbia's progress."

The commentary concludes by calling on the reformists to take action, saying time is running out ahead of parliamentary elections in December. "A regression toward nationalism would lead to fatal consequences for the entire region for years to come," says the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung." "Without stability in Serbia, there is no hope for a lasting peace in the western Balkans."


The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" comments today on the tense relationship that has recently developed between Germany and Israel.

"This state of affairs has reached alarming dimensions," the paper says. Europe has lately taken an anti-Israel stance regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has led "to corresponding anti-Jewish resentment." But the German daily hastens to point out this does not indicate rising support for Islamic militants.

Israel accuses Europe of having too much sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, so much so that it has failed to join a broad boycott on dealings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

To heal the rift, the paper says both sides must compromise. Europe must recognize that it has left a democratic Israel in the lurch and acknowledge the hardships brought on by continuing suicide attacks by Palestinian extremists. On the other hand, Israel should not be oversensitive in taking any advice or criticism as an expression of hostility.


Writing in "The Washington Post," Hala Mustafa of the Al-Ahram Foundation and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy discuss ways of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Promoting democratic reform in the region would undermine the "cynical" solution proposed by radical Islamists -- that an extreme form of Islam is the only solution to social ills and widespread dissatisfaction. Moreover, such liberal reforms would "give ordinary citizens a stake in the development of their own countries."

"But promoting democracy in the Arab world is a tricky process," say the authors. "'[Instant] democracy' -- that is, immediate elections -- would be unwise, perhaps even catastrophic. Most Arab regimes would view open, transparent elections as a threat and would call on the vast array of tools at their disposal to manipulate, marginalize, defeat or even neutralize their opponents."

But continuing to speak about political reform while doing nothing also can no longer be an option, they say. A "gradual yet persistent liberalization" is needed throughout the region. And yet such liberalization "is a messy, difficult, time-consuming process. It means sometimes working with -- and sometimes working against -- Arab leaders to advance a strategy of opening political space; encouraging freer, more responsible media; increasing participation for women in public life; modernizing educational systems; improving justice systems and instituting incremental political reforms."

This long process will also require "a master politician's sense of when to cajole, when to praise and when to twist arms," as well as constant attention and vigilance from Western democratic governments.


Writing in Belgium's "Le Soir," Martine Dubuisson says the time has come for a Euro-American reconciliation. "Old Europe" and the United States are scheduled to come together once again for their biennial ministerial meeting tomorrow in Brussels. The meeting itself is unexceptional, but officials from both sides of the Atlantic will be coming together amid a general sense of relief, Dubuisson says.

Divisions over the war in Iraq were at the center of a widening trans-Atlantic gap in perceptions and priorities. Europeans themselves were divided into the "war" and "peace" camps. Now, "Old Europe" and America are renewing ties in much the same way inter-European ties were restored by the Berlin summit in September between British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a staunch U.S. ally, and Europe's antiwar leaders, French President Jacques Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The hour has finally come for the "normalization" of U.S.-European relations, Dubuisson says. On both sides of the Atlantic, the most pressing question persists among both the pro- and antiwar camps: How to move past the current impasse and ensure a stable future for Iraq?

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