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Western Press Review: Yugoslavia, U.S.-Russia, Oslo

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 4 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today touches on several areas. They include the international community's current policies toward Serbia and Kosovo, and an important disagreement between the United States and Russia over the building of a new U.S. national missile defense. There is also continuing comment on the results of the Oslo summit that earlier this week sought to advance the Middle East peace process.

WASHINGTON POST: The democratic opposition is not a sure bet, but it is a worthwhile one

Two U.S. national dailies discuss Serbia and its relations with the West. The Washington Post focuses on Serbia's democratic opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, noting that it has become "fashionable" in the West to belittle the opposition for its internal divisions and general unreliability. According to the paper, for people who believe the Serbian opposition is a failure, the chief bit of evidence is that "Milosevic remains in power."

But the paper's editorial goes to say that "the reproofs, [while containing] some truth ... are not the whole truth." It believes that followers of the Alliance for Change, Serbia's chief democratic opposition coalition group, "are taking grave risks as they fight for freedom." It adds: "They have coalesced around broad principles that represent a welcome departure from the Milosevic era: democracy, economic reform, respect for human rights and regional prerogatives."

The paper continues: "Although polls show Mr. Milosevic is unpopular in his country, unseating him is unlikely to be easy. ... Those who challenge him ... lose their jobs and livelihood." The Washington Post concludes: "The democratic opposition is not a sure bet, but it is a worthwhile one. The Balkans cannot be stable as long as Mr. Milosevic remains in power."

NEW YORK TIMES: Washington sends exactly the right message to the Serbian people

The New York Times today writes of significant modifications in U.S. policy toward Serbia announced yesterday by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They include a pledge to suspend economic sanctions -- which include a flight ban and an oil embargo, among other strictures -- if the republic holds free and fair early elections. The paper calls this "an important and welcome change in U.S. policy." Previously, it notes, the U.S. had said the sanctions would continue as long as Milosevic remained in power.

The editorial goes on: "With its new policy, Washington gives encouragement to Serbian opposition parties and sends exactly the right message to the Serbian people. The main purpose of sanctions all along has been to discredit and weaken Milosevic. ... Now Washington can fairly argue that the sanctions will eventually benefit all Serbs if they compel Milosevic to let them choose their government."

The NYT adds: "To make it even clearer that Washington is not out to punish ordinary Serbs, the administration should build on its recent decision to accept a European Union plan to provide winter heating oil to two Serbian cities. Oil should be made available to all Serbian households." It sums up: "By linking the sanctions against Serbia to free elections and by limiting the pain inflicted on innocent parties, Washington will improve its chances of forcing Milosevic from office."

WASHINGTON POST: Kosovo lives in premeditated political and economic limbo

The Washington Post's foreign-policy columnist Jim Hoagland discusses Kosovo's prospects five months after the end of NATO's air raid on Yugoslavia -- and he is not optimistic. He writes: "Kosovo [today] lives in premeditated political and economic limbo. The United Nations Security Council is avoiding decisions beyond immediate human needs for the harsh Balkan winter."

Hoagland says: "This is the picture painted by UN officials, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who have taken on Kosovo as an international protectorate." In conversations with Hoagland, the writer says, Annan made "no apology for requiring the ethnic Albanian majority formally to remain part of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia while living in virtual independence. [Annan acknowledged that] the Security Council resolution that governs Kosovo established that fundamental contradiction."

Hoagland goes on: "It is not only the Kosovars who are left hanging by the UN policy of kicking decisions on long-term economic development, property ownership and territory-wide political institutions as far down the road as possible. [NATO-led] peacekeeping forces will have great difficulty extricating themselves from a Kosovo that exists in a legal no-man's land still vulnerable to Serbian reconquest." He concludes: "The UN must show that the current limbo leads where the Kosovars want to go and is not intended to be an endless tunnel to sidetrack them."

The U.S. and Russia are embroiled in a major quarrel over Washington's desire to move ahead in building a new national missile defense system in response to what it perceives as possible future threats from so-called "rogue states" such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran. Russia opposes the move, which it says is a threat to its own security. Commentators in the same two U.S. national dailies assess the dispute today.

WASHINGTON POST: The Russian military has taken a harder line

In a news analysis for the Washington Post, correspondent David Hoffman says that Russia's announcement yesterday "that it had tested a short-range interceptor missile for the Moscow anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system [appears] to be a symbolic warning to the U. S. not to go ahead with [its] national missile defense system ..." Hoffman adds: "Some Russian policy experts say they could envision limited changes in the [1972] ABM treaty in exchange for sharp cuts in strategic offensive arsenals. But the Russian military has taken a harder line."

Writing from Moscow, Hoffman notes that "in a television interview last week, Major-General Vladimir Dvorkin -- chief of the military's Central Research Institute and one of Russia's top strategists -- said the threats from North Korea, Iran or Iraq are 'grossly exaggerated.' Speaking of the 'inviolability' of the ABM treaty, Dvorkin said: 'If that stone is removed, the whole system of [U.S.-Russian arms] treaties will collapse."

Hoffman adds: "On Tuesday (Nov. 2), the same day as the rocket test, [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin sent a message to [U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton [calling] for 'faithful adherence' to the [ABM] treaty, saying this was the best way to counter missile threats from other countries. The Clinton Administration," Hoffman also notes, "has said it will make a decision next June on whether to build such a system, which initially would be based in Alaska and North Dakota."

NEW YORK TIMES: Russia will extort the highest price it can

New York Times columnist William Safire is far more heated in his treatment of the subject. He asks: "Why do Yeltsin's manipulators pretend to see this [new system] as a strategic threat to their thousands of missiles? Why are they enlisting China and the UN in a campaign to deny the U.S. this rudimentary protection from rogue states? Why do they ostentatiously test their SS-19s and antimissile missiles, threatening an end to strategic arms control if [the U.S. builds] a tactical umbrella for a nuclear-rainy day [that is, possible attack]?"

Before delivering his answer, Safire adds: "On the surface, the Yeltsin position seems irrational. The Russians know a defense against individual missiles would not challenge their nuclear superpower status. They know that the development of missiles that kill missiles -- which they could steal from or wheedle out of us -- would protect them from a growing threat from Iran's Islamic fundamentalists on their border and in Chechnya. Then why," he asks again, "their fuss?"

Here's the columnists answer to all his own questions: "It's their main leverage on [the U.S.]. Using [the U.S.] outdated treaty with a USSR that no longer exists, Russia will extort the highest price it can in economic and military aid for graciously granting America permission to defend itself against rogue-state missiles. By posing ABM as a matter of principle, [Boris] Yeltsin will respectfully hold us up for all he can."

Of today's three comments on the success of Tuesday's summit meeting in Oslo, Norway, two are moderately affirmative, the third quite negative.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Both leaders will be hard pressed to avoid a crisis along the way

In the first category, Britain's Financial Times says that "US President Bill Clinton brought together Israeli and Palestinian leaders ... in a symbolic summit designed to add momentum to a slow-moving peace process. Now," the paper adds, "the two sides must build on the ceremonial event by moving forward on the tough negotiations that will determine the future of the Middle East."

The editorial goes on: "There are [still] many doubts that within a year, [as the two parties agreed last month,] they can bridge the differences on the Palestinian entity's future borders." The paper calls the deadline set by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat "an ambitious timetable" -- but the FT is far from convinced it is achievable.

The editorial says major stumbling blocks on the Israeli side include Barak's apparent unwillingness to allow a future Palestine to use Arab East Jerusalem as a capital, his insistence on total economic separation of a Palestinian state from Israel and, above all, continued expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. On the Palestinian side, the editorial says that Arafat must give "priority [to stamping out] the corruption that has tarnished the credibility of the Palestinian Authority." It concludes: "Both leaders will be hard pressed to avoid a crisis along the way."

AFTENPOSTEN: A stalemate in the Middle East would spell disaster

In Norway, the summit's host country, Per Christiansen comments in the daily Aftenposten: "The ultimate purpose of any peace mediator is to make himself unnecessary. In this sense, it was regrettable that Bill Clinton came to Oslo to participate in a peace process that should have ended a long time ago. But," the commentator adds, "as it turned out, his presence at the negotiating table was absolutely necessary: During the several weeks since Israel and the Palestinians approved a new timetable for achieving permanent peace, the process had [again] ground to an almost total halt."

Christiansen continues: "The Oslo summit underlined the reality that the Middle East peace process has its own peculiarities and dynamics. It is driven partly by the great expectations of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, by the pressures of the deadlines they have set upon themselves, and -- not least -- by fear on both sides about what would happen if the process collapses." He adds: "[After Oslo,] such a collapse is still a real danger -- unless the peace process moves forward. [And] a stalemate in the Middle East would spell disaster."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: A little more honesty now might prevent a lot of violence along the way

The Wall Street Journal Europe is far more negative about the Oslo summit and its likely consequences. For thing, the paper says, "what was billed as a major summit on the Mid-East peace process ... on the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's death ... turned into a beatification of sorts. Bill Clinton," it adds, "was even presumptuous enough to speak for the late Israeli prime minister: 'If Rabin were here with us today, he would say there is not a moment to spare.'"

The WSJ calls Clinton's statement "a noble lie," by which it means a myth created by politicians to keep their people happy, if not fully informed. Part of this myth, says the paper, is that "Rabin was a saint [and] everything was fine until he was killed [by an assassin]. Another part of the myth is that "now that Rabin confidant Ehud Barak is in power, things are back on track. And," as a final part of the myth, people are told that "once the Palestinians have their state, everything will be settled."

The editorial dismisses all this as totally unrealistic. It says further: "We are inclined to think that there is a real chance for peace. But much will depend on who eventually replaces Mr. Arafat [who is said to be 70 years old and known to be ailing]." The paper concludes: "Even on the most optimistic assumptions, [achieving final peace] looks like a 10- to 20-year process, not the one- to two-year sprint currently envisaged. A little more honesty about that now might prevent a lot of violence along the way."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)