Zimbabwe Divisions Pose a Quandary for West

JOHANNESBURG — President Obama has offered to extend a hand to repressive rulers who unclench their fists. On Friday, he will meet the Zimbabwean politician, Morgan Tsvangirai, who is trying to loosen the grip of an autocrat whose party’s very symbol is the clenched fist: Robert Mugabe, 85, in power now for 29 years and counting.

Mr. Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister, received more votes than President Mugabe in an election last year, but was pressured by regional leaders into an unsatisfactory power-sharing deal four months ago. It left Mr. Mugabe in control of the police, the spy service, the media and the criminal justice system — powers he has used to countermand Mr. Tsvangirai’s recent efforts to reestablish the rule of law and freedom of the press.

Therein lies the puzzle for Mr. Obama and leaders of other wealthy western democracies Mr. Tsvangirai is meeting during a three-week tour of the United States and Europe: How do they help Mr. Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe without bolstering Mr. Mugabe?

Mr. Tsvangirai has insisted he’s not walking around with a begging bowl, but clearly he and his party hope that the United States and other western democracies will provide greater aid to help them rebuild the country’s devastated health, education and sanitation systems — accomplishments that would strengthen them for the next election.

Most acutely, Mr. Tsvangirai needs to find a way to pay teachers and other civil servants more than the $100 monthly allowance that is all the government can now afford. The teachers have been threatening to quit work and public employees to go on strike.

“There’s more need to move from humanitarian to recovery support for the government,” Mr. Tsvangirai said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “The government needs resources to fulfill its obligations.”

Diplomats from the rich Western democracies have said recently that they want to help, but remain reluctant to directly aid a government in which Mr. Mugabe still retains so much power.

For his part, Mr. Mugabe, who has for decades won plaudits in Africa for poking a finger in the eye of the West, seems determined to belittle Mr. Tsvangirai and sabotage his international tour.

The Herald, the state-owned newspaper Mr. Mugabe still controls, reported this week that the president had “tasked” Mr. Tsvangirai with getting the United States and Europe to lift travel and financial sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his inner circle — a report that Mr. Tsvangirai said misrepresented the facts.

“The removal of restrictions depends on what we do back home,” Mr. Tsvangirai said. “We have to earn the confidence of the international community.”

Since Mr. Tsvangirai left the country, Mr. Mugabe has flaunted his affinity for autocrats. The Herald published a two-part defense of North Korea’s nuclear tests. And Mr. Mugabe welcomed Sudan’s president, Omar Hussan al-Bashir, charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, to an summit attended by African heads of state.

The government then blocked Zimbabwean journalists from covering the same summit, though they were armed with a High Court order that they be allowed to attend — and despite Mr. Tsvangirai’s own insistence that journalists no longer need government accreditation.

In recent months, journalists have continued to be arrested after writing stories Mr. Mugabe’s allies did not like. And despite an order by a tribunal established by the 15 nations of the region that the government halt evictions of white commercial farmers — a ruling Mr. Mugabe dismissed as nonsense — the government has proceeded with prosecutions of the farmers, some of whom have been subjected to violent land invasions. On Friday, the same tribunal ruled that Zimbabwe’s government had breached its order.

Some months ago, shortly before he joined Mr. Mugabe in government, Mr. Tsvangirai mused in an interview on the confounding question of how to deal with Mr. Mugabe and what Mr. Obama could do to help. He essentially acknowledged that he had not found the answer — and expressed a hope that Mr. Obama might have some ideas.

“The choice is do you reengage Robert Mugabe, or do you continue to alienate him?” he said. Neither had worked, he conceded.

Mr. Tsvangirai himself has been beaten, jailed, subjected to assassination attempts and tried on treason charges during the long years of Mr. Mugabe’s rule. He’s now trying to get along with Mr. Mugabe. But that comes with risks to Mr. Tsvangirai’s credibility.

Civic leaders, journalists and some diplomats are increasingly critical of Mr. Tsvangirai for trying to be nice to Mr. Mugabe instead of speaking out more boldly and consistently when the repressive state security forces Mr. Mugabe controls abuse their power.

They also say his Movement for Democratic Change, which has a majority in Parliament, needs to use that power more aggressively to attempt to repeal laws that suppress freedom of the press and assembly.

“There are energetic measures he could be taking and instead he seems to be propitiating Mugabe,” said Iden Wetherell, a senior editor at two of Zimbabwe’s few independent newspapers, The Standard and The Independent.

But analysts here also say that despite Mr. Tsvangirai’s tactical missteps as he tries to outmaneuver Mr. Mugabe, one of Africa’s most cunning political survivors, he benefits from a reservoir of support and even devotion from ordinary Zimbabweans.

That sympathy has only deepened since his wife of 30 years was killed in car crash not long after he became prime minister, followed by the drowning of his 2-year-old grandson, who had come to Zimbabwe with his parents to attend his grandmother’s funeral.

“He’s clearly seen as a savior,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. “And the deaths of his wife and grandson have raised his profile as someone who can endure suffering and still try to assist those he serves.”