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Western Press Review: Croatia's HDZ Party And Its Future In Europe And Georgia's Rosy Path Ahead

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in major news outlets today take another look at the Balkans, from the victory of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party in 23 November parliamentary elections to the latest attempts in The Hague to prosecute those accused of crimes during the civil wars of the 1990s.

We also take a look at attempts to draft an Iraqi constitution and what Georgia's future holds following its "Revolution of Roses."


A "New York Times" editorial says the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been "fair and thorough" in its 10 years of investigating the crimes committed during the nation's civil wars in the 1990s. But the court "has also been expensive and lumbering." The tribunal is now seeking to speed up proceedings by allowing the accused to plead guilty to lesser charges and thus receive lighter sentences. Such plea-bargains are controversial and criticized by some as too lenient. But the "NYT" emphasizes that they also "make swifter justice possible."

Even more importantly, plea bargains are eliciting confessions as part of the deals the accused are striking with prosecutors. The tribunal is thus gaining legitimacy within the Balkans, for nations of the former Yugoslavia that consider themselves victims of the war must also face the fact that their troops committed horrible crimes, as well.

Last year, Republika Srpska issued a report on the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, where 7,500 Muslim men and boys -- mostly civilians -- were killed by Serbian forces. The report claimed that those who died were soldiers who died fighting. "The New York Times" says this claim could not be made today, since the "commanders of the brigades that assaulted Srebrenica detailed, as part of their plea agreements, how Serbian forces planned and carried out the massacre."

Such "acknowledgements of guilt would not have happened if soldiers were not confessing to these crimes, and they are crucial to breaking the cycle of ethnic violence in the Balkans."


An item in this week's "Economist" also takes another look at the Balkans, as Croats commemorate the fall of Vukovar to the Yugoslav Army and Serbian paramilitaries on 18 November 1991. Since 1999, however, the city has been back in Croatian hands, the result of a peaceful reintegration of seized territory rather than a violent recapture.

Today, a large Serb minority remains in Vukovar, although the city as a whole houses only half of its 45,000 prewar population. Many houses have been rebuilt, but unemployment remains at around 37 percent -- more than double the national average. Nevertheless, in the years since the war, "Old friendships have been rekindled, many Serbs and Croats socialize and there have been some mixed marriages."

In Borovo Selo, a Serb-dominated suburb of Vukovar, Serbian and Croatian flags "fly beside each other at the town hall. The Serbian flag, representing a Croatian 'national minority,' is legal. Every day, five buses arrive from Belgrade; visa requirements between the two countries have been suspended; [and] bilateral trade is on the increase."

"The Economist" says: "It makes one wonder what the war was for."


In an unexpected twist to Croatia's 23 November parliamentary elections, the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party overthrew the ruling Social Democrats. "Understandably, some people in Europe are worried," says Borut Grgic of the Washington-based Atlantic Council, writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe." The HDZ, founded by former CroatIan leader Franjo Tudjman, was once "a nationalist party with no ear for European ways and no patience for compromise." But the victory of a reformed HDZ last week has "[given] Croatia, and Europe, something to celebrate. This once troubled Balkan country threw out the unpopular sitting government."

The Social Democrat party of outgoing Prime Minister Ivica Racan "got Croatia out of international limbo," and put it on track for NATO and European Union membership. But Racan's government "had clear limitations. Mr. Racan was too politically weak to implement reforms demanded by Brussels."

Croatia is aiming to join the EU by 2007 -- and to do so, "it needs a strong government with not only the votes in parliament but popular support among the people. Serious compromises and painful decisions are needed." And today's HDZ "stands the best chance [of] delivering on economic and administrative reform."

Croatia "is not reverting back to nationalism," Grgic says, although "legitimate doubts remain about the HDZ's commitment to civil society."

Europe should be "unyielding" on these points, and hold the party and its leaders responsible for meeting EU standards on transparency and human rights. Grgic says, "The good news is the political agenda of today's HDZ is, for the most part, entirely compatible with the agenda in Brussels."

An editorial in the London-based "Financial Times" discusses what it calls Washington's "convoluted new plan" to set up a provisional Iraqi government and an assembly that will draft a new constitution for Iraq by mid-2004. But U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer and his backers in the administration still seem "unable to grasp why their plans keep being rejected." The amended plan does not discern that "a new constitution must be written by an assembly elected by all Iraqis."

The paper says the constitutional commission set up by the Iraqi Governing Council voted unanimously for an elected constituent assembly. "Yet the occupation authorities still want an assembly indirectly elected by gatherings of notables."

Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called this unacceptable -- "and he is right," says the paper. The "value of an elected assembly is clear. It would build a bridge from the largely emigre governing council to internal forces. It would have the legitimacy of being voted for by ordinary Iraqis rather than notables nominated by the occupation."

The "Financial Times" says the need for legitimacy "far outweighs the U.S. preference for a top-down strategy built around favored exiles and a timetable synchronized with President George W. Bush's re-election campaign." The eventual transition of power to a viable government in Baghdad "is about the future of Iraq, and it is the Iraqis who should decide it."

A "Los Angeles Times" editorial says Georgia has a long history "of blood feuds and civil war." But the peaceful overthrow of an unpopular ruler "suggests that the country [may] now be on a more promising path." Although ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze "had the diplomatic skills to help bring freedom and democracy abroad" during the Soviet disintegration, "he lacked the political [skills] to create it at home." Today, Georgia "is bankrupt, and corruption there is rampant."

But the paper quotes interim President Nino Burjanadze as saying, "The path of democracy is irreversible this time." Establishing a democracy in Georgia could have a "salutary effect" on other countries in the region.

Elections earlier this year in Armenia and Azerbaijan brought widespread protest and charges of fraud. Central Asia's newfound independence following the Soviet collapse brought many authoritarian regimes to power. But "[the] stronger that democracy grows in Georgia, the more powerful an example it will set for its neighbors. The protesters who carried bouquets into parliament and ended the Shevardnadze regime with the 'revolution of the roses' must let democracy bloom."

An item in the weekly "Economist" says Georgia's future will have consequences for its neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All three could become "proxy battlegrounds for influence" between Russia and the United States. Ensuring access to Caspian energy resources and the fear of growing Islamic militancy in the Caucasus looks set to keep the two hegemons' regional interest up for the foreseeable future.

With President Ilham Aliyev taking over from his father in Azerbaijan and the ouster of Shevardnadze, led by opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, two of the three republics now have "fresh but untested" leaders in place of the old "flawed but dependable" ones. And now the Caucasus is once again an open field for the great powers to jostle for influence."

The magazine considers the optimistic scenarios for the region.

Russia could refrain from meddling in Georgia's autonomous separatist republics and encourage their leaders to cooperate with the government in Tbilisi. "Strengthening democracy" could "[keep] the government in line," while increased foreign aid helps it progress.

In Azerbaijan, Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev could prove to have a reformist bent. He may decide to retire some of his father's cronies while tackling corruption, making elections transparent and investing oil revenues into other industries. But the optimistic scenarios are unlikely, "The Economist" says. "Much depends on the good sense and determination of the region's leaders," and on the willingness of Russia and America to work together. If "a better future [can] triumph over the past" in the Caucasus, the magazine says, "now is the best chance so far."

Michael Stuermer discusses the latest developments in Iraq's political scene in "Die Welt." On 27 November, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shi'a leader, declared his opposition to the U.S. plan for indirect elections for a provisional administration to take power by 1 July. Shi'a leaders are eager to translate their status as a majority in Iraq into formal political power.

The Shi'a majority on the Governing Council will make no decisions that go against al-Sistani, Stuermer says. The Ayatollah has already succeeded in scuttling the American strategy of adopting a constitution before holding elections. Stuermer says the debate is not a question of legal issues but of anchoring Shi'a Islam "in the future power structure and, subsequently, the power of the mullahs, as in neighboring Iran." This is a far cry from the idea envisioned by the Americans or by the Kurds and Sunnis. The conflicting issues even threaten civil war, says Stuermer.

Those in Paris and Berlin pressing for self-government in Iraq "underestimate the danger," he says. They should consider the consequences. Stuermer believes immediate self-government in Iraq would give rise to an "Ayatollah republic, civil war or a disintegration of the state into three Osman provinces," divisions that existed for centuries until modern Iraq was established in 1923. Stuermer warns that all three scenarios could even occur simultaneously.