The World From Berlin German Hostages Released (for Cash?)

Two Germans taken hostage in Iraq in January were released on Tuesday. The country is breathing a sigh of relief, but questions about ransom money are making the rounds.

Rene Bräunlich, right, and Thomas Nitzschke arrived back in Berlin on Wednesday. 

Rene Bräunlich, right, and Thomas Nitzschke arrived back in Berlin on Wednesday. 

Two German engineers  kidnapped in Iraq in January were released on Tuesday and arrived back in Berlin on Wednesday afternoon. Rene Bräunlich, 32, and Thomas Nitzschke, 28, both employees of Cryotec Anlagenbau AG near Leipzig, were kidnapped on their way to work at a detergent plant in the city of Beiji, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, on January 24. Beiji is part of the notorious Sunni triangle, a hotbed of Iraqi insurgent activity. The German government has refused to comment on widespread speculation as to whether a ransom was paid for Bräunlich and Nitzschke, as has been common practice during earlier kidnappings.

An editorial in the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung praises the ongoing "solidarity" of the people of Leipzig (the hometown of Bräunlich and Nitzschke), as well as Berlin's "quiet diplomacy." The commentator notes that the comparative quiet that surrounded the two hostages in past weeks was "probably the best thing that could happen, in that it gave the Foreign Ministry's crisis management team the time to find a way to liberate the two hostages." The fact that a ransom was almost certainly paid confirms that "kidnappings have become a lucrative business in Iraq," and while it is true that "whoever pays a ransom gives in to unscrupulous criminals," it is no less true, according to the editorial, that "when two lives are at a stake, the only thing that counts is the well-being of the hostages."

An editorial in the center-left Berliner Zeitung emphasizes the fact that the kidnapping does not seem to have been politically motivated. "It was all about money, in the end," the editorial asserts. This, the commentator writes, was "fortunate," as "the greed of the kidnappers made their choices predictable -- more predictable than those of political fanatics in any case." Of course, bowing to demands for ransoms is a controversial decision, such that "the usual questions will now be raised: Was it right for the German state to negotiate? Should the state even signal its willingness to do so?" The editorial concludes by saying that while "finding answers to these questions will be necessary eventually, today we are simply glad that the two men are safe."

An editorial in the business daily Handelsblatt begins by reminding readers of other German hostages whose release was successfully negotiated by the German government (such as Susanne Osthoff, a German archaeologist kidnapped last year and then released in time for Christmas). "The German government has exceptionally positive results to show when it is a matter of pressing for the liberation of hostages taken in crisis regions." In this case as in others, Berlin's "quiet diplomacy" was a "success," the commentator writes. He adds that the situation in Iraq is far from being safe for Germans, despite the fact that Germany was not part of the so-called "coalition of the willing" that invaded the country under US leadership. "No one can be sure they won't be kidnapped," the editorial states. All the more reason for holding back on criticism of Germany's intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the commentator argues. The BND was involved in a scandal earlier this year over the extent to which it cooperated with the US military in identifying bombing targets during the invasion of Iraq. The scandal is alluded to, but not explicitly mentioned in the editorial. The commentator suggests that Germans should be grateful to the BND for its role in the liberation of Bräunlich and Nitzschke.

--Max Henninger, 13:40 pm, CET

Trouble in Bolivia

Bolivian president Evo Morales made good on one of his election promises on Monday by sending soldiers to occupy the country's 56 natural gas fields and threatening to evict the foreign companies operating there unless they negotiate new contracts within six months. The measure, described as "a fundamental means for recovering our sovereignty" by Morales, the country's first Indian president and a close ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, has provoked statements of concern from representatives of Exxon Mobil and Total, as well as from the government of Brazil (Bolivia's main natural gas client). Morales has now stated that he plans to also extend state control to mining, forestry and other fields of the economy.

The policies and actions of the Morales government have been quick to polarize public opinion. Editorials in German papers on Tuesday share skepticism with regard to Bolivia's nationalization measures, but while that skepticism goes hand in hand with barely masked hostility in some editorials, it is accompanied by sympathy in others.

"The news from Bolivia sounds like news from another era," begins an editorial on the nationalization measure in the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. The commentator is reminded of similar measures taken by South American left-wing governments during the 1970s, such as Chilean president Salvador Allende's nationalization of the copper industry, and reminds readers that "this often ended with a US-backed military coup and a neo-liberal about-face" (as was the case in Chile). Yet while the images of soldiers stationed on Bolivia's gas fields may seem like a throwback to the Cold War, "the struggle for Latin America's resources is as topical as ever."

The commentator points out that Morales' policies are part of a larger political strategy that sees him united with Chavez and Castro, the so-called "Bolivarian revolution" (named after the 19th-century South American revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar), and that other nations in the region, such as Peru and Ecuador, may soon join the alliance. He argues that all of these nations are "symbols of exploitation," with "Washington's arrogance" going a long way towards explaining the leftward shift in South American governments." The commentator immediately adds that "the Cuban-Venezuelan-Bolivian counter model" will hardly "solve the troubles" of these nations, suggesting that the USA and Europe would do well to "assume their responsibility."

Right leaning daily Die Welt is no less skeptical of the Bolivarian revolution. "Bolivia Does Itself No Favors" is the title of the paper's editorial on Morales' nationalization measure. Here too, a comparison with earlier nationalization measures is drawn; the editorial begins by pointing out that "it is not the first time a Bolivian government orders the nationalization of the oil and natural gas industries." Similar measures were indeed taken during the 1960s and even as early as the 1930s. Resorting to such measures today will do no great harm to "the gringos," the commentator argues, although it will mean poverty and economic failure for "the Latinos." The commentator laments the 2003 overthrow of Bolivia's former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, who was "more oriented towards the principles of the free market," citing the year of de Losada's overthrow as that when "the decline of a potentially wealthy nation began." The piece concludes that Germany should stop paying aid to Bolivia.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the left-wing Die Tageszeitung has a more sympathetic take on the policies of Morales. "Hardly any country can look back on as brutal a history of exploitation as Bolivia," the editorial begins, adding that the occupation of the nation's natural gas fields was nothing less than "an act of democracy." Yet the commentator is also aware of the "dangers that come with such a decision" -- he cites "capital flight, mismanagement, abuse of power and corruption" as factors that have caused "more than one catastrophe" in the "history of Latin America's struggles for nationalization." Bolivia also faces possible opposition from the Social Democrat governments of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, as well as from the right-wing government of Columbia, although this is tempered somewhat by the strong support that comes from Venezuela and Cuba.

The situation is ultimately propitious, the commentator argues, what with Latin America's "new social and political actors" -- such as the governments and local organizations of the Bolivarian revolution -- confronting the International Monetary Fund, "Washington's most reliable instrument in the past," at a time when the IMF's power is dramatically restricted by the "new authority" that Latin America derives from "the current situation on the energy market." To see Latin America's energy resources "in the hands of popular majorities" is "genuinely inspiring," the editorial concludes, even if it involves "great responsibility for the governments involved."

-- Max Henninger, 11:30 am, CET


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