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Western Press Review: Looking For The Velvet, Fearing The Fist

  • Don Hill

Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Watching developments in Serbia from a distance, elements of the Western press draw easy comparisons with the 1989 Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution. But the Belgrade protesters -- mostly burghers and students -- lack the breadth of the movement in Czechoslovakia. As one analyst put it: "There's not much velvet in the Balkans."

The "Wall Street Journal Europe" and the British newspaper "Financial Times" in editorials today urge Western governments to turn their backs on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, despite the uncertainties that would attend his political demise.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The man protestors are trying to unseat will be hard to dislodge

The paper calls its essay, "Slobo's Gamble." The newspaper says: "The man the protesters are trying too unseat -- or at least weaken -- will be hard to dislodge, not least because of the skillful maneuvers that gave him a key role in the Bosnian peace process." The editorial says: "If Mr. Milosevic deems it safe to ignore the admonitions of the international community, it will be because he thinks the West has found him indispensable to achieving a permanent peace in the Balkans."

The editorial continues: "Aside from the question of how an opposition victory might affect Bosnia, there is the issue of what kind of leadership any of the opposition's various factions would exercise more broadly. What all this adds up to of course is simply the weak argument that there is a degree of certainty -- we'd say a small one -- that comes with the devil you know." It concludes: "But given the choice between an authoritarian Serbia that has made a paper pledge to behave itself and the messy and uncertain process of democracy-building in one of the vestiges of the old East Europe, we'll take the messy uncertainty any day."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The West should have no further dealings with the dictator

The paper says: "Some Western governments seem to have been hoping the protests would die down, so that they could carry on doing business with a Serbian leader they have got to know and, up to a point, respect. That reaction was mistaken." The newspaper contends: "The West should leave Serbs in no doubt where its sympathies lie. It should have no further dealings with the dictator unless he accepts the elected local authorities. And it should express firm support for an opposition whose dignified behavior has done much to redeem the Serbs' tarnished international reputation."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Belgrade is not Prague

Tracy Wilkinson, in an analysis in today's edition, dissects the Velvet Revolution analogy. She writes: "The comparison between anti-Milosevic rallies here and the domino of demonstrations that ended communism in most of Eastern Europe in 1989 is a common one. It is an analogy that the students and opposition parties leading the Serbian protests enjoy and promote. But, as many Serbian analysts and Western diplomats point out, Belgrade is not Prague."

Wilkinson says: "Many in Serbia believe that Milosevic has been mortally wounded by the protests." She writes: "With each passing day, though, the risk of greater violence grows as protesters and police face off in tense confrontations and the rhetoric of civil war escalates. After the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, (Predrag) Simic and others said, revolutionary change in Serbia would almost certainly be bloody."

She quotes analyst Simic, who directs a Belgrade research institute, as saying: "It wouldn't be a Velvet Revolution. There's not much velvet in the Balkans."

NEW YORK TIMES: Thousands of riot policemen have been ordered to block protestors

In yesterday's edition, Jane Perlez examined the impact of the beating death at the hands of counter-demonstrators of Predrag Starcevic. She says that thousands of mourners attended his funeral Saturday in icy winds and driving snow. She wrote in an analysis: "Starcevic, who was described by a relative as having attended every opposition rally for the last 38 days, was in many ways typical of the people who have poured into the city streets to protest Milosevic's autocratic rule. His financial situation had deteriorated because of the Balkan war, which has destroyed Serbia's economy. His faith in the government had crumbled, but he had not been so much of an activist to join up officially with the opposition." She said: "His death, however, marked a turning point in the growing confrontation between the Milosevic government and the emboldened opposition."

Perlez wrote: "Until Tuesday, the demonstrations of sometimes more than 100,000 people had gone ahead peacefully. But on Tuesday, and every day since, Milosevic has ordered thousands of riot policemen, some armed with machine guns, to block protesters from marching through the streets."

LONDON TIMES: Police units have begun to attack small groups as they leave rallies

Anthony Lloyd, writing today, agrees that life is turning grimmer for the demonstrators. He comments: "President Milosevic's attempts to silence the voices of protest against his overturning of municipal elections could appeal to any black humorist." Lloyd writes: "Arrayed against the demonstrators are the machinations of a police state." The writer says: "Though they have avoided large-scale confrontation, the new police units have begun to attack small groups, individuals and foreign journalists as they leave the rallies."

LONDON GUARDIAN: Western policy is 'better the devil you know'

In today's edition, commentator Ian Traynor draws parallels between Milosevic's situation and that of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Traynor writes: "Western policy on both villains is essentially 'better the devil you know,' for fear of the instability that may follow their departure. The throngs in Belgrade and in Zagreb last month know better that it is these two men, Milosevic above all, who foment and thrive on instability."

NEW YORK TIMES: Young people have been the backbone of resistance to repression

The paper today carries a commentary by Serbian novelist Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian. Arsenijevic writes: "Although many students have been accused by some observers of being extreme Serb nationalists, supposedly angry at Mr. Milosevic not for starting two devastating wars but for failing to carve out a Greater Serbia, this rebellion isn't the slightest bit nationalistic. I have never seen the visible signs of extremism -- women in traditional Serbian costumes, people brandishing Serbian flags, men chanting the old Serb anthem 'God of Justice.' " He says: "In fact, the demonstrations are the continuation of the protests by students and opposition politicians in 1991 and 1992 when we worked first to prevent the civil war and then to stop it."

The author continues: "The young people of Belgrade have long been the backbone of resistance to repression. Unfortunately, during the war the West gave little recognition to the Serbs who were working for peace and against Mr. Milosevic. It is a tragedy that with the fighting over, we are still getting no support in our efforts to bring down the last totalitarian regime in Europe."