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Western Press Review: Balkans, Estonia, Central Europe

  • Joel Blocker
  • Anthony Georgieff

Prague, 9 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators today discuss the problems of attaining peace in Kosovo and the dangers the embattled Serbian province represent for the Balkans in general. There is also some comment, in the Scandinavian press, on Sunday's election in Estonia, as well as analyses of the idea of Central Europe and multi-culturalism's place in that region.

NEW YORK TIMES: Much can be done to keep history from repeating itself

The New York Times evokes what it calls "Balkan ghosts" in an editorial. The paper writes: "With ethnic violence in Kosovo, and politicians warning that NATO will need to occupy Bosnia for years to come, it seems to many Americans that a durable peace in the Balkans is a hopeless goal. The conflicts stem from ancient hatreds, people say. They can be buried for years or decades, but they always return."

But, the paper warns, while "it is dangerous to underestimate the weight of history, it can be just as mistaken to overestimate it. Ancient hatreds in the Balkans have produced cycles of killing and revenge....For lasting peace in the Balkans, and in other regions with similarly troubled pasts, the world must be able to spot [troubled] conditions before violence begins."

The editorial adds: "Cooling hatreds after a radioactive war like Bosnia's or Kosovo's requires time, and an imposition of new rules that calm fears. [Communist leader] Tito did this in Yugoslavia after World War II. Class took the place of ethnicity. It might still be working had [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic not been allowed to exploit nationalism."

"Preventing ethnic violence requires foresight," the NYT concludes. "The world watched Milosevic's growing crackdown in Kosovo for years, but did nothing until the problem became virtually incurable. The West should have increased the pressure on him to restore the self-government he robbed from Kosovo when he came to power. No one can change history, but much can be done to keep it from repeating itself, even in the Balkans."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Macedonia is central to continued stability in the Balkans

For Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff, there is "good news [these days] from the Balkans," particularly, he says, in Macedonia and Bulgaria. "Macedonia," Pfaff writes, is central to continued stability in the Balkans, which is why a United Nations peacekeeping force is stationed there and Macedonia made the staging area for a NATO force ready to intervene in Kosovo."

He continues: "A positive development in Macedonia's relations with Bulgaria, its most important neighbor, therefore warrants attention....On February 22, the Bulgarian and Macedonian governments signed a joint declaration in Sofia meant to put an end to [what the document called] 'artificial problems between our two countries.' Prime Ministers Ljubco Georgievski and Ivan Kostov renounced territorial claims upon one another, [concluding] they had 'found a way to speak in the language of a united Europe.'"

Pfaff sums up: "With Macedonia stabilized, the international dimension of the threat [in Kosovo] is greatly reduced....What happened in February in Sofia has made [prospects for the area] rather brighter than they were before."

WASHINGTON POST: Albright had the phone hung up in her face

In contrast, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer perceives "bad news" for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in what he considers the abject failure of recent Kosovo peace talks in Rambouillet, France.

Krauthammer writes: "[Albright] got neither peace nor [NATO] air strikes nor [a troop] deployment" in her two visits to the talks. "Instead," he adds, "she had the phone hung up in her face by a two-bit leader of the year-old...Kosovo Liberation Army [UCK]....This," he adds "is a version of the [U.S.] film "Wag the Dog" [that simulated a successful U.S. war against Albania] in which the U.S. loses to the Albanians."

The commentary goes on: "What makes this all the more humiliating is that Mrs. Albright's objective was to save the UCK and the Kosovars from destruction at the hands of the Serbian army. Unfazed, the Secretary of State sent [former Republican presidential candidate] Bob cajole those ungrateful [Kosovar] guerrillas to give lip service to her autonomy plan. The UCK, upon reflection, probably will agree. And the U.S. can [then] go and bomb Serbia on their behalf. Such," Krauthammer concludes, "is the state of U.S. foreign policy [today]."

AFTENPOSTEN: Estonia's democracy is young

Two Scandinavian papers today comment on the results of Estonia's Sunday general elections. In Norway, Aftenposten says the vote "revealed a growing deficiency of democracy in a country that has had but three [parliamentary] elections since it regained its freedom in 1991. Less than 50 percent of those eligible to vote," it notes, "bothered to show up at the polls, and this is hardly a demonstration of a people's understanding of what democracy is about."

The paper's editorial continues: "The fact that [Edgar] Savisaar's populist Center Party emerged as the single biggest winner also shows that Estonia's democracy is young. Savisaar, who had to resign as a Prime Minister in 1995 after he had ordered, in KGB-style, the tapping of his political opponents' phones, will not be given a mandate to form a government. Instead, a Center-Right-coalition is likely to assume power in Tallinn."

But in addition to the declared aims of Estonian leaders to join the European Union and NATO, Aftenposten concludes, they "should do something to win the hearts and minds of [their own] electorate. They should, the paper urges, "introduce reform in the country's taxation and income policies. Or else, the country's populists will win even greater support [than they did Sunday]. That would harm Estonia's democracy."

BERLIGSKE TIDENDE: Rights can be treated with indifference

Denmark's Berlingske Tidende also worries about Sunday's low voter turn-out. It says that the "Estonian elections are a reminder that rights that have been hard fought-for and that are now accepted as given can be treated with indifference."

The editorial goes on: "Only one out of two Estonian citizens thought it necessary to demonstrate his or her recently regained democratic rights, to cast a vote and thus participate in steering their country's government for the next four years. During that period, very important decisions will have to be made, including in what way and how fast Estonia is to become a member of the EU and NATO."

"The no-show percentage of voters in Estonia," the Danish paper adds, "shows that [Estonian] people have grown tired of their political leaders, many of whom had been involved in public scandals. It should, however, be noted that this indifference has not spawned any organized protest movement: the performance of the two Russian-speakers' parties was much worse than it should have been if they are to reflect the size of the Russian-language minorities in Estonia. Although the Russians feel themselves discriminated against," the editorial adds, "many of them chose to stay at home rather than to go and cast their votes."

NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS: Central Europe has now been recruited into the politics of relativism and exclusion

In a long article in the current issue of the biweekly New York Review of Books, British historian Timothy Garton Ash discusses what he calls "the puzzle of Central Europe." Ash notes that, "for nearly 40 years after 1945, the term was absent from the political parlance of Europe. Hitler had poisoned it," he explains, while "the Cold-War division into East and West obliterated it. In the 1980s, [however,] it was revived by Czech, Hungarian and Polish writers such as Milan Kundera, Gyorgy Konrad and Czeslaw Milosz, as an intellectual and political alternative to the Soviet-dominated 'Eastern Europe.'"

"In the 1990s," the article continues, "Central Europe has become part of the regular political language... Just one problem remains," Ash continues, "where is it?" U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he recalls, wrote "in a newspaper article last year that Central Europe 'has more than 20 countries and 200 million people.' Yet," Ash adds, "we often find the term used to mean just the countries who are joining NATO this Spring, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic...."

For, he notes, "to be 'Central European' in contemporary political usage means to be civilized, democratic, cooperative -- and therefore to have a better chance of joining NATO and the EU." But, Ash continues, "since Central Europe is, by definition, somewhere in the center, every one of its boundaries is disputed: northern, western, southern and eastern. By the same token," he adds, "in delineating Central Europe we also delineate the other major geographical regions of Europe today."

Ash concludes by saying that he himself "has tried to make the case for Central Europe for nearly [20 years. It] has been a good cause," he argues, "and has helped transform the central region of Europe for the better. But I am appalled at the way the idea has now been recruited into the politics of relativism and exclusion. Whatever and wherever Central Europe is, it should not be part of that."

FINANCIAL TIMES: It will be a long haul

On a more mundane level, but also under the heading "Central Europe," the British daily Financial Times today argues that "Central Europe is not Russia. That message is dawning on the bond market. In the immediate panic of [last summer's collapse of the Russian ruble]," the paper says, "the economies of central and eastern Europe were tarred with the same brush. Investors, sent reeling by the crisis in Russia, pulled back from emerging markets in general."

The FT's editorial continues: "For the central Europeans at least, it appears, that normal service is finally being resumed. In a welcome return to common sense, investors are regaining confidence. They are beginning to distinguish once more between the credit risks posed by the various countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union."

The FT says further: "The re-opening of the [Central and East European] market is welcome, but some caution is still justified..... The benefits of eventual EU membership for the central Europeans will be great as their economies grow to catch up eventually with the Union....But even under the optimistic scenario that the EU grows at 2.5 percent a year and Poland grows at five percent, it would still take Poland 35 years to reach 75 percent of average EU per capita GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. It will be," the paper concludes, "a long haul."