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Western Press Review: Glances Back At 1996, And A Few Forward At '97

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 2 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Several newspaper editorials today look back at some of the major events of 1996 and their significance. Other papers turn their attention today to recent events in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Serbia's Milosevic wins tyrant of the year award

The paper dedicates its editorial to recalling people and events it says are "worthy of a few final words of recognition before we are fully embarked into the New Year." It calls new United Nations Secretary Koffi Annan of Ghana "our irrepressible optimist choice for agreeing to take charge of the UN at a time when it is strapped for cash, under attack from its biggest contributor (the U.S.) and suffering discredit on issues ranging from its embrace of dubious science (global warming) to the international frictions arising from the Law of the Sea Treaty's expansion of offshore economic zones."

The paper gives what it calls its "mystery man of the year award" to Russia's Alexander Lebed who, it says, has his eye on the Russian presidency. Its editorial continues: "The former general has a record of heavy handed military actions in Afghanistan, Moldova and Azerbaijan. On the other hand, he contrived a peace in Chechnya. He calls himself a 'semi-democrat' but has slandered entire groups, calling the Mormons 'scum,' for example. The gravel-voiced general is noted for his sardonic one-liners and scores upon scores of self-contradictions." Finally, the paper says: "Our tyrant of the year award goes to Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia and the man the U.S. put its chips on to keep the Bosnian peace agreement patched together. May he carry the honor proudly as long as it lasts."

NEW YORK TIMES: The West's pressure is the main reason for Milosevic's restraint

Commentator Flora Lewis looks ahead to 1997 as a year which, apart from surprise crises, "will confront world policymakers with crucial decisions already on the agenda." Among these she lists are how to expand NATO and how to handle Serbian national elections due later this year. On NATO, Lewis writes: "The most critical step will be launching (its) expansion to the east (while) reassuring the Russians sufficiently to head off a dangerous reaction. The decision has been made in principle and Moscow knows that. The issue is the context."

The columnist says: "It would make a big difference if Moscow had a real sense of its own priorities, as Mikhail Gorbachev did when he negotiated German reunification in 1990. But Russia is only saying what it is against." Looking ahead to the Serbian national elections, she writes: "If Slobodan Milosevic holds out that long without provoking civil war, it will be essential for the West to do all it can to see that they are free elections. Meanwhile, it must lean on Mr. Milosevic to avoid violence. This pressure is surely the main reason for his restraint so far." Lewis concludes that "crises are foreseeable in Zaire, North Korea, and maybe in Serbia's province of Kosovo if Belgrade erupts. The Middle East peace process teeters on the brink. It won't be an easy year for diplomacy, but the basic policies are in place, which is a fair start."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Separatist activity grows in China

Turning to current news events, Britain's paper analyzes China's rising concern over nationalism among some of its border minorities, including Uighers and other Muslims, and Tibetans. Correspondent Tony Walker writes that an anti-government bomb attack last week in the Tibetan capital Lhasa "marks a possible violent new stage in nationalist agitation and is likely to reinforce concerns in Beijing about separatist activity becoming a greater threat to national security." He continues: "the latest troubles in Tibet (Beijing's) attention on the situation in the oil and mineral rich region of Xinjiang, whose population of 16 million is about two-thirds Muslim."

The analyst continues: "China's strenuous efforts to strengthen diplomatic and security links with Central Asian neighbors are part of attempts to neutralize possible troubles including backing for separatists." He notes that Beijing has struck an agreement with "the three central Asian states to counter Islamic fundamentalism (and that) China's close ties to Pakistan and Iran are aimed partly at ensuring that separatists in Xinjiang (in Western China) are denied support from those quarters." Walker concludes that it is not clear that such diplomatic efforts are "justified by the low level" of violent separatist activities in Xinjiang to date, but "Beijing is clearly not in the mood to underplay potential for trouble."

NEW YORK TIMES: Afghanistan's Taliban leaders see little reason to accommodate the West

The paper analyzes the significance of the Taliban Islamic militia's seizing of Kabul late last year and the consolidation of its hold over two-thirds of Afghanistan. Correspondents Steve Levine and John Burns say that the "Taliban, despite their protestations of independence, did not score their successes alone. Pakistani leaders saw domestic political gains in supporting the movement, which draws most of its support from the ethnic Pashtun who predominate along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border."

The analysts say that Pakistan wants a trade link with "the newly independent Muslim republics of what had been Soviet Central Asia, along roads and railways running across Afghanistan (in hopes of) a potential economic bonanza for Pakistan and a strategic breakthrough for the West (because) unless the Central Asian states have an opening to the sea they will never be free from Russia." But they point out that Washington, with close ties to Pakistan, is having difficulty formulating a policy toward the Taliban.

They say: "U.S. policy on the Taliban has seesawed. The Taliban have found favor with some American officials, who see the group's implacable hostility toward Iran as an important counterweight in the region. But other officials (say) the Taliban have created the most backward-looking and intolerant society anywhere in Islam (and that) the Taliban have done nothing to root out the narcotics traffickers and terrorists who have a haven in Afghanistan under the mujahideen." Levine and Burns conclude that there are few signs that either Washington or the Taliban will understand the other soon. They observe that "as the Taliban consolidate their power in Kabul ..the sense that (the) Taliban leaders now give is that they see little reason to accommodate the West."