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1998 In Review: The Top News Stories Of The Year

  • Don Hill



Prague, 21 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - The top international news stories in 1998 weren't events so much as works in progress, cumulative not episodic. At year's end few of the main trouble spots, economic, political or military, had come to any resolution.

As the year began, the international community was assembling financial assistance packages for Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea -- some of the Asian "tiger" economies reeling from the crisis that began the previous autumn. But the prospects for reform and recovery in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were unclear as government's delayed reforms and some of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescriptions themselves came under attack from some economic experts as too severe. Meanwhile, the crisis continued to spread throughout Asia and began to have a worldwide impact.

Nations in transition began to feel the impact of the Asian turmoil in the form of lower export prices, less favorable conditions in international capital markets, scaled back investments by investors, and currencies under attack. And in August, when the crisis reached a peak in Russia, Russian delay of international debt payments and devaluation of the ruble contributed to a worldwide stock market plummet. At year's end, the Russian government still was struggling to develop a budget and a strategy to avert further disaster.

The worldwide economic troubles had struck with double impact in Russia, where they were accompanied by a political crisis. In March, President Boris Yeltsin fired his cabinet, including long-serving Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin. He replaced Chernomyrdin with the young, virtually unknown Sergei Kiriyenko. Following the economic events of August, Yeltsin dismissed Kiriyenko. He sought to bring back Chernomyrdin but the Communist-led Duma rejected this bid. Yeltsin and the Duma finally settled on political veteran Yevgeny Primakov as premier. Yeltsin, sick and politically weakened, has since been fading in power and influence. In early December, he emerged from the hospital bed -- where, officially at least, he was being treated for pneumonia -- to fire yet another close aide. Within three hours, he returned to the hospital.

Not only in Russia, but throughout Europe, political developments seemed to be shifting the perspective of governments. In the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, government changes took a leftward shift, continuing a trend that had begun in previous years in France and Great Britain. The changeover in Germany brought the end of the 16-year-era of Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, who had become a symbol of European Union stability. He was succeeded by Gerhard Schroeder, a Social Democrat. Parliamentary elections in Slovakia in September made, if not a leftward shift, a break from the nationalist, authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar. Slovakia's new coalition government said it would seek to be Westward-oriented, favoring integration with West Europe.

The United States, meanwhile, was undergoing a government crisis of its own. The opposition Republican Party and a special prosecutor pressed ahead with an investigation into charges that President Bill Clinton committed perjury, lying under oath, in connection with an inquiry into Clinton's relationship with a young woman, named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's public approval remained high, however, and his Democratic Party gained seats in the House of Representaties in November elections. However, the House's Republican leaders moved ahead and passed two articles of impeachment as the year drew to a close. He now faces a trial in the U.S. Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be required to remove him from office.

Efforts to promote peaceful outcomes in long-running conflict zones made small steps in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Mideast. Gunbattles erupted and tanks rumbled once again in Yugoslavia as the government of Slobodan Milosevic began a crackdown in late February on separatist ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo. The United Nations -- calling for a ceasefire -- slapped new sanctions on Serbia. But Milosevic continued the violent suppression until October, when he appeared to relent under threat of imminent NATO air strikes. As 1998 drew to a close, uncertainty still hung over U.S.-led efforts to launch meaningful negotiations.

The international community faced similar difficulties in relations with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whose government repeatedly put up obstacles to U.N. inspectors seeking to investigate Iraq's weapons programs. After months of warnings U.S. and British forces launched four days of air strikes against strategic Iraqi positions in mid-December, the most severe attacks since the end of the Gulf War. U.S. and British leaders said their aim was to reduce the risk of Iraqi aggression in the Persian Gulf region but they stopped short of saying they moved to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

In Northern Ireland, Irish and British leaders in April reported a historic breakthrough -- a negotiated peace settlement between Protestant and Roman Catholic factions. The deal held up through a heated standoff in July over a proposed Protestant parade, arson deaths of three Roman Catholic boys in August, and a bomb blast that killed 28.

Israeli and Palestinian representatives agreed in October to restart their peace efforts with a new U.S.-brokered plan, negotiated -- with Clinton -- between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. This occurred after Netanyahu in March had rejected the basic U.S. plan. But by December, both sides seemed to be pulling back, their followers seemed not to be following, and President Clinton's visit to Israel and Palestinian lands, though historic, resulted in little concrete progress.

Truck-bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in the neighboring African nations of Kenya and Tanzania in August killed more than 240 people and suddenly made terrorism the focus of renewed international concern. The United States responded to the bombings with air attacks on what U.S. authorities said were a terrorist base in Afghanistan and a chemical weapons plant in Sudan. Subsequently, questions arose about the U.S. choice of targets and the effect of the attacks on them. Terror attacks continued in Algeria and charges of ethnic cleansing and violence against civilian populations arose in Kosovo, Indonesia, and Africa.

Three major extradition cases attracted wide attention.

British police arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in October in London on an arrest warrant from a Spanish court investigating allegations of murders of Spanish citizens in Chile under his military regime. Amid widespread coverage in the Western press, the case has gone through lengthy legal procedures and sudden reversals in British courts. Still unresolved -- whether Pinochet should have immunity from prosecution.

It has been pointed out that the case could set a precedent for the selective prosecution of individuals whose alleged crimes are much less clearly defined than Pinochet's. One often cited example is that the government of one of the post-Soviet states could ask for the arrest and deportation of a Soviet-era official who had been involved in activities on its territory that could be considered a violation of the principles of international human rights law.

The case of Turkish Kurd separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan is even more complicated. He was arrested in November by Italian authorities on German warrants but Germany later said it would not act on the warrants. Turkey requested extradition but Italy was forbidden by its constitution from extraditing a person who could face the death penalty in another country. At year's end, Ocalan was no longer under house arrest but was forbidden from leaving Italy. His case has frayed relations between fellow NATO members Italy and Turkey and raised questions about whether an international court could be the best alternative in such instances.

Two Libyans wanted in connection with the explosion on a passenger plane 10 years ago may have their case moved to the Netherlands. Britain and the United States, which have been pushing for the trial, were awaiting word from Libya, which in the past wanted any sentencing to take place in Libya. The UN Security Council has pledged to suspend economic sanctions against Libya once the suspects arrive in the Netherlands.

All three cases remained unresolved as the year approached its end.
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