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Western Press Review: Registering Afghan Voters, Russian Defiance Of The OSCE, Rethinking U.S. Steel Tariffs

Prague, 3 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in some of the major media outlets today are the painstaking efforts to register voters in Afghanistan; Washington's expected reversal on steel tariffs; and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) irresolute efforts to secure compliance from Russia in Moldova. We also take a look at a profile of Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas.


Writing in "The Daily Telegraph," Hamida Ghafour discusses a new program to register voters in Afghanistan ahead of elections in June. The program seeks to register 10.5 million Afghans in eight Afghan cities. But this is no ordinary get-out-the-vote campaign. Electoral officers were provided with flak jackets, several potential voters were reluctant to hand over their weapons at the door, "and 50 miles [80 kilometers] away the Americans were bombing Al-Qaeda hideouts."

Several complaints were lodged by women whose husbands or fathers would not grant them permission to leave the house to register. UN workers delayed issuing them registration cards "for fear that Islamic militants might attack the building." It is under these circumstances that Afghanistan embarks on a precarious path toward democracy.

But the paper warns that elections could further destabilize the country. It cites Christina Bennett of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank based in Kabul, as saying Afghanistan has no history of elections, and many Afghans do not clearly understand how they work. She says in Afghanistan today, what really matters is "who has the most guns and opium crops."

In the months between now and June elections, 4,880 election officers will traverse the country to register Afghan voters. Most do not have birth certificates, which complicates an already tough situation. Much of the southern Pathan region "is off-limits to foreigners because of heavy fighting and threats from the ousted Taliban." But if this beleaguered region is not adequately represented, the results of Afghanistan's first ballot could be widely dismissed as illegitimate.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today says it should now be clear to U.S. President George W. Bush that "[subordinating] economic and trade policy to electoral pandering" is a policy fraught with peril. Bush must now respond to a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that deemed his 2002 steel tariffs illegal.

The Bush administration instituted the tariffs "to protect America's ailing industry and woo steelworkers' votes in the key electoral battlegrounds of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio." But the move "harmed the overall economy and antagonized U.S. trading-partner nations." Some erstwhile partners in trade have now threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on a number of U.S. products "if Washington does not lift its ill-advised taxes on imported steel."

The U.S. administration has since indicated that it is considering lifting the controversial import duties.

The paper advises: "Bush should stop trying to fine-tune trade policy to enhance his electoral vote count and focus on the overall national interest. Both he and the United States will be a lot better off when he does."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" discusses the two-day meeting this week of foreign ministers from member states of the OSCE in the Dutch city of Maastricht. The paper criticizes the OSCE for allowing Russia to renege on several of its former commitments, including a missive to withdraw its troops from Moldova.

"Considerable arsenals" of Russian troops still occupy Moldova's Transdniester region, and Moscow is seeking a way to preserve its "squatter's rights" in the country.

"When Moscow abruptly ended the OSCE's mission in Ingushetia and Chechnya, it met with no resistance." And while Russia agreed in 1999 "to close down two bases in Georgia and set a timeline for closing two further bases, four years later Russia still occupies three of the four bases in Georgia and has made clear its intention to stay."

The paper remarks bitingly that another "ignominious" OSCE summit like that in Porto in 2002 might prompt one to wonder "whether the OSCE had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kremlin."

Finally, the U.S. State Department seems to be taking a more active role and "belatedly waking up to the fact that Russian support for separatists in two ex-Soviet republics isn't exactly the route to stability, let alone democracy."

The paper suggests the West should pursue "a more consistent and robust policy to support the sovereignty of the Moldovans and Georgians."


An analysis in "Jane's Foreign Report" says Russia, as well as China, India, and Iran, is making concerted moves to gain influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus to stem growing U.S. influence in the region.

"Jane's" says there is "an evolving alliance," in particular between Russia, China, and India -- "all nuclear powers, all grappling with Islamic extremism and all deeply concerned about what they see as the unilateralism of the U.S.A. and its doctrine of pre-emption through the use of massive forces and, if necessary, nuclear weapons."

"Jane's" notes that Moscow signed a treaty of friendship with Beijing in July 2001. Prior to this, Russia, China, and four Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to facilitate multilateral efforts at stemming Islamic fundamentalism and to promote regional economic development. "All this pointed to a profound geopolitical transformation for Central Asia, Russia and China, with Moscow and Beijing as the decision makers in the region."

Although several nations are vying to assert influence in an area of growing strategic importance, it is "Moscow's new drive to reassert itself in the region that defines the emerging potential for confrontation" with the United States.

In October of this year, Russia opened an air base outside Bishkek -- its first military installation abroad since the 1991 Soviet collapse. "Jane's" says the Kant air base "reasserted, symbolically at least, Russia's military influence in a traditionally turbulent region that many in Moscow fear is being absorbed into the U.S. orbit."

Although the Kremlin's moves are no threat to the U.S. regional presence, they underscore "the deep suspicions harbored by Moscow" of U.S. intentions.


Thomas Urban in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" looks at the career of Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas now that his political rivals are calling for his impeachment due to his relationship with a chief financial backer.

Urban says Paksas still enjoys the support of rural populations, which regard him as a hero who sought to introduce law and order and take on those in government wanting to enrich themselves. On the other hand, he has lost credibility among urban people and intellectuals.

Urban notes that this is the third time the 47-year-old Paksas has come close to losing his post in less than a year. Paksas is said to have left political office on 17 occasions and changed political parties three times in his career.

But unlike many other top politicians, this youthful and vigorous politician was never a member of the Communist Party -- which speaks in his favor, Urban says.

The current scandal involves a Russian businessman, known as a member of Moscow's secret police, who has admitted financing a considerable part of the president's election campaign. Urban concludes that this relationship alone is enough to taint the president's reputation.


Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Daniel Hamilton and Joseph Quinlan of the Johns Hopkins Center for Trans-Atlantic Relations say that despite a deteriorating political relationship stemming from the debate over war in Iraq, the United States and Europe continue to maintain and even strengthen their economic ties.

The United States and Europe are each other's most important and profitable trading partners, and their economic ties are by far the strongest in history. The years since the Cold War -- a period in which the erosion of a common threat was supposed to have weakened trans-Atlantic ties -- in fact saw one of the most intense periods of U.S.-European integration.

Perhaps the most striking fact is that this trans-Atlantic integration continued throughout the past year, even while political relations were on a conspicuous downturn. But the frustrations with "Old Europe" felt by Washington did not prevent American companies from committing roughly $40 billion in direct investment in Europe during the first half of 2003, about a 15-percent increase from the previous year.

U.S. investment in France -- during a period of contentious relations over Iraq -- jumped $2.3 billion, one of the highest increases in a decade. U.S. capital inflows to Germany totaled close to $5 billion in the first half of 2003, despite similarly deteriorating relations.

In short, say the authors, as the U.S. Congress was busy renaming "french fries" to "freedom fries," American firms in France and the rest of Europe were poised to reap bountiful profits despite the petty trans-Atlantic rhetoric.

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