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Press Review: Russian Economics and War Crimes in Bosnia

  • Stephanie Baker

Prague, July 24 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary today focuses on the Russian economy in light of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) delay of its monthly payment of a $330 million loan to Russia. Western newspapers also examined the decision by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to step down from political office.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Russia's tax collection problem is no catastrophe

An editorial says: "The International Monetary Fund delivered an appropriately gentle wake-up call to the Russian government this week." Calling the delay in payments "entirely warranted," the editorial notes: "The fund could not have let the budget shortfall go unchallenged if it hoped to maintain the credibility of its agreements to lend money to governments that promise to undertake fiscally prudent economic reforms."

The newspaper continues: "Russia's tax shortfall reflects a fundamental, though solvable, problem. The Russian tax system is riddled with corruption, loopholes and atrocious administration." Despite these serious problems, says the Times, "the fund wisely downplayed its decision to withhold loan disbursements pending a review next month. It issued no heavy-handed threats. None are warranted."

The editorial points out that "the economic picture is much better than most observers in the West expected." It says the budget deficit resulting from lower tax collections represents a "real" problem, but not a "financial catastrophe." The paper concludes: "The IMF, to preserve its authority, needed to deliver a nudge. It was wise not to deliver a shove."

THE WASHINGTON POST: IMF wants Moscow to get serious about tax collection

Lee Hockstader comments that the decision "conveyed the IMF's determination following the Russian presidential elections to see that Moscow takes action to get serious about tax collection, which has plunged during the past three years." He explains: "Armed with a special monthly review process to monitor the government's compliance with the terms of the loan, the IMF quietly urged the Kremlin to tackle the growing problems this spring. But with (Russian President Boris) Yeltsin fighting for his political life in Russian presidential elections, fund officials were reluctant to take a step as dramatic as delaying a monthly disbursement. Following Yeltsin's reelection, Fund officials evidently felt freer to act."

Hockstader concludes: "Most economists are convinced that raising taxes in Russia is primarily a question of political will, and that during the recent presidential campaign that will was noticeably lacking. During the campaign, the government was particularly susceptible to arguments from enterprise directors who said they could either pay taxes or pay wages, but not both."

THE GUARDIAN: Budget deficit and coal miner strike require Moscow to raise taxes

David Hearst writes: "With a budget deficit threatening to balloon out of control and a wave of industrial unrest caused by non-payment of wages already spreading through the country, the government has no alternative but to adopt a harsh program of tax enforcement, in an effort raise revenues by 40 percent." Hearst points out that "industrial unrest in the summer, when most factories are at a standstill and the workforce is on unpaid leave, is rare." But he reports that a coal miners' strike in response to unpaid wages is spreading across Russia.

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES: Russia's new import tax will hurt struggling merchants

In a news analysis, Richard Boudreaux looks at the Russian government's decision, announced yesterday, to impose a new import tax in response to the IMF's concerns. He maintains: "The measure will have broad social impact, threatening the livelihoods of as many as 20 million struggling unlicensed merchants. In Russia's rough ride from communism to the free market, many of those thrown out of work or reduced to paupers' wages have coped by becoming permanent globe-trotters--traveling to places such as China, Turkey and Poland, filling their luggage with merchandise and carrying it home duty-free to sell on the streets."

Boudreaux notes that "the broadest clampdown...will come against 'shuttle traders,' who have become so organized in recent years that they often travel in chartered planes." Bourdeaux concludes that these shuttle-traders are "bound to feel disillusioned by the new tax, which, if collected, could jeopardize their well being. Without a broader crackdown on corruption and organized crime, these merchants say, it would be impossible for most of them to pay off the bribe-takers and racketeers who are allowed to prey on legitimate business."

Commentary today is also looking at the impact of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's decision to step down from the leadership of his party and relinquish the Bosnian Serb presidency.

THE WASHINGTON POST: Karadzic is becoming a "mythical hero" to Bosnian Serbs

In today's edition, Christine Spolar argues that Karadzic is becoming a "mythical hero" following a U.S. deal to force him to step down. She writes: "Radovan Karadzic is everywhere in this angry land of gentle hills. He is on lapel buttons, on campaign posters, on the lips of nearly everyone. Four days after the big-haired Bosnian Serb leader agreed to drop out of sight, people still call him holy." Spolar says: "Karadzic, indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, may be achieving in peace what eluded him during four years of warfare in the Balkans. In the days since U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke forced Karadzic's removal from the political scene, the Serb leader is morphing into myth."

Spolar says that Karadzic's supporters "are now insisting that a vote for his Serbian Democratic Party--even without Karadzic at the helm--is a vote to sink the hopes of the Dayton peace agreement for a unified Bosnia." She reports that at a weekend rally near the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale, speakers paid tribute to Karadzic as a hero. She says he was described as "a man who had sacrificed himself for the party. The man who built his destiny with the state. An entity who needed no name. In some cases, Karadzic was simply, and effectively, referred to as 'he.'"

THE NEW YORK TIMES: "Moderate" is a relative term in Bosnian Serb politics

In today's edition, Raymond Bonner looks at the prospects for moderate Bosnian Serbs to win the elections in September. He writes: "As they try to carry out the Dayton peace accord and its vision of a unified, multi-ethnic Bosnia, U.S. and European officials have spoken hopefully about the emergence of 'moderate' Bosnian Serbs. Their hope is that the moderates could counter the power of Dr. Radovan Karadzic, the political leader accused of genocide and other war crimes. Once Karadzic's tight grip on his people is loosened, the theory goes, a less hard-line opposition, willing to work with the Muslims and Croats in single nation, might gain power, perhaps even in the elections scheduled for September 14."

Bonner notes: "Opposition parties are indeed sprouting here, but moderate is a relative term....The clash between the opposition and the ruling (Serb Democratic) party seems to be more about power than drastic differences in philosophy." Bonner says that opposition party leaders, based in the city of Banja Luka, "complain that Karadzic excluded them from his inner circle, and they say that a Pale clique has grown rich from war profiteering." But he maintains that opposition leaders also insist they would not "surrender Karadzic to the international war crimes tribunal."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Croatians thumb their noses at the U.N.

Samantha Power, in an opinion piece that appears today, writes: "Richard Holbrooke, whisked back to the Balkans to rejuvenate the ailing Dayton accord, did not succeed in persuading (Serbian) President Slobodan Milosevic to arrest Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs indicted for war crimes. But the accord is not being thwarted by the Bosnian Serbs alone. With the spotlight on the Bosnian Serb leaders' defiance, the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, and his Bosnian Croat allies have been thumbing their noses at the United Nations and revealing a half-hearted commitment to democracy and reconciliation, underlining the need for a forceful American response."

She points to the Bosnian Croats' refusal to accept the results of the recent local elections in the divided city of Mostar as proof of their disruption of the peace accord. And she notes that Tudjman has been less than forthcoming in handing over indicted war criminals on Croatian territory. Power concludes: "The peace is fragile. It will be strengthened if the Clinton Administration stops letting Radovan Karadzic act as if he is running Europe--and starts making Croatia behave as if it belongs there."