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European Press Review: Bush and Democracy

Friday's editorials in European papers focused on U.S. President George Bush’s foreign policy speech and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s defense of Russian democracy.

U.S. President George Bush trumpeted anew his desire to see democracy spread across the globe, wrote Britain’s Financial Times, especially in the Middle East where he said a “forward strategy for freedom” was needed. The paper noted that Bush admitted that the U.S. has failed many countries over the last 60 years by supporting totalitarian regimes for reasons of stability. All America gained was anger and frustration, which the paper said was proved on Sept. 11, 2001. But since then Bush has often chosen security over freedom. For Arabs, the paper wrote, Bush’s call for a strategy of freedom is open to the charge of hypocrisy due to what they see as its endorsement of Israel’s wholesale abuse of Palestinian rights.

The German business daily Handelsblatt wrote there can be no doubt that President George W. Bush is on the defensive as far as his domestic policy is concerned. The indicators for the state of the U.S. economy may be clearly pointing upwards, but the headlines are still dominated by the tense situation in Iraq. A year before the presidential elections, Iraq is developing into a foreign policy headache for Bush. According to the paper, the announcement that 30,000 U.S. soldiers are to be pulled out of the region by next May shows that in the White House the warning lights are flashing.

Another topic that surfaced in Friday’s papers were remarks made by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the EU-Russia summit. As Putin was being grilled by reporters over charges of human rights abuses in Chechnya, Berlusconi interrupted and blamed the media for exaggerating the situation, saying he had to intervene as Putin’s “lawyer.”

By doing so, Berlusconi did something worse than commit a few diplomatic faux pas, wrote Rome’s La Repubblica. His previous slips didn’t carry the kind of diplomatic consequences as this one does. As the current president of the EU, his voice is supposed to represent the other members. The common European Union foreign policy has had some rough times, the paper wrote, but never before has someone in the name of the EU said something that went so far against the bloc’s agreed position.

Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung remembers vividly how over the summer Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi walked leisurely together around Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia. It was around then that the Italian leader shocked the EU by suggesting Russia was ready for to join – despite the doubts about Putin’s commitment to human rights. Putin wants to gain more access into the European market without having to change too much at home, wrote the paper. Italy’s vain political businessman is just the man to help him achieve that.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s interjection at the press conference on behalf of Russia’s Vladimir Putin had more than a bit of the surreal to it, wrote France’s Le Figaro. As Russia moves closer step by step to an authoritarian system, taking down the head of oil company Yukos in its way, the Italian Prime Minister praises Russia as a stronghold of democracy with a bright future. The paper noted how Berlusconi dismissed all the media reports about human rights abuses by Russia as “legends and distortions.” His flippancy was so shocking that even Putin was astonished, the paper wrote.