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Western Press Review: Russia's Chechnya Ultimatum, WTO Post-Mortems

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 7 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's ultimatum to Chechens yesterday to leave their capital, Grozny, or face military annihilation within days evokes some commentary today in the Western press. There is also continuing comment on the significance of last week's failure of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) ministerial meeting in the United States.

GUARDIAN: For the people of Grozny, there is little or no prospect of more concrete action by Europe's leaders

Commenting on Russia's ultimatum, Britain's Guardian daily urges the West "to take a stand on Chechnya." The paper writes in an editorial: "The Russian ultimatum to the remaining citizens of Grozny ... to flee or face indiscriminate bombardment by planes and artillery will expire at the exact moment that European leaders meet this Saturday in Helsinki for a biannual European Union summit. Last night," the paper notes, "the EU again expressed its concern over Russia's bloody war in the Caucasus. And when the Helsinki summiteers issue their usual declaration this weekend, these concerns about Chechnya will no doubt be aired again."

"Unfortunately," the editorial continues, "for the people of Grozny, there is little or no prospect of more concrete action by Europe's leaders -- who, ironically, will have spent much of their meeting discussing post-Cold War security. They will make their vacuous pronouncements even as the horror rains down on Grozny, without a trace of a blush, and then go home. Nor," the paper, adds, "is the EU alone in its carefully calculated inaction. The recent Istanbul meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made similar noises about the need for a political solution in Chechnya."

In fact, the Guardian argues, "nobody [in the West] wants to risk a military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia over Chechnya. Nobody wants to destabilize Russia's democratic process, as general and presidential elections loom. Nobody in the West seriously challenges Russia's right to secure its borders and control its own territory. And nobody underestimates the threat posed by a revived, anti-Western nationalism, stoked by unscrupulous politicians and generals. Chechnya is not Kosovo," the paper concludes, "and Russia is not Serbia."

IRISH TIMES: Novaya Gazeta's reporter painted a totally different picture of soldiers demoralized by 'cold, mud and fungus'

In a news analysis in the Irish Times today, Moscow correspondent Seamus Martin says this: "Russian forces, who have issued a 'get out or die' ultimatum to residents of Grozny, have [reportedly] been extorting money from civilians trying to leave Chechnya." An independent Moscow newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, yesterday published, in Martin's words, "a 'price list' which Russian soldiers were demanding from Chechens crossing into the republic of North Ossetia, while the Human Rights Watch organization claimed that by the time the ultimatum runs out civilians in Grozny could be facing starvation."

The analysis continues: "According to official sources, there are about 50,000 inhabitants left in [Grozny.] But Mr. Malcolm Hall, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch's office in Moscow, said his organization believes the number to be much smaller. Those left consist mainly of the elderly, the infirm and the poor who could not afford to bribe their way out. 'Those who were able to leave have already left,' [Hall] said."

Correspondent Martin adds: "While state-run TV programs have shown victorious Russian troops storming key positions throughout northern Chechnya, Novaya Gazeta's reporter Anna Politkovskaya painted a totally different picture of soldiers demoralized by 'cold, mud and fungus' and resorting to 'heavy drinking and cannabis.' She listed the tariff of bribes which had to be paid at a border crossing into the neighboring republic of North Ossetia. [She also noted that] the ORT and RTR television channels support the Yeltsin administration and the government of the prime minister, Mr. Vladimir Putin, and have been showing nothing but Russian victories. The NTV channel now opposes the government and shows less encouraging news."

POLITIKEN: The war in the Caucasus is getting bloodier and bloodier

Denmark's Politiken newspaper writes today: "Russia's commitment -- made at the OSCE summit in Istanbul [last month] -- to allow international observation of the Chechen conflict was the good news. But the bad news is that the war in the Caucasus is getting bloodier and bloodier." The papers adds: " If the [OSCE] mission, which is expected to arrive in Grozny in the middle of this month, is to be of any use, it should include meetings with the Chechen leadership and not be just a sightseeing tour with Russian guides."

The Politiken editorial goes on: "The Russian military now allege that they have Grozny under control, following a series of announcements over the past few weeks that they had done just that. But the increasingly violent opposition the Russians are meeting in Chechnya shows that the war has deteriorated for Moscow."

It's clear, the paper adds, that "the Kremlin is cooperating with the OSCE only out of necessity. But if anyone can talk Russia into common sense, it is the [54-nation-organization] that Moscow itself wanted to make the most important one in Europe."

WASHINGTON POST: 'Political failure' actually constituted a political triumph

Turning to last week's WTO fiasco in the U.S. northwestern city of Seattle, Washington Post commentator Jagdish Bhagwati asks: "What went wrong?" His answer mentions several possibilities: "Serious and irreconcilable differences among the member countries on the conventional trade agenda may have derailed the talks. Or the [U.S.] administration may have unwittingly been guilty of gross mismanagement. Then again, perhaps President [Bill] Clinton wittingly sacrificed and scuttled the talks to pursue a short-run political agenda, this so-called 'political failure' actually constituting a political triumph."

He continues: "I believe that the evidence points ... convincingly to the last hypothesis. The [Clinton] administration had literally done nothing to prepare Seattle for the ruckus that erupted. Everyone knew for weeks that disruptive demonstrations were being planned and by whom. [Last] Tuesday, when the formal negotiations were supposed to begin but were held up by mayhem, I saw groups of hooded demonstrators. I asked a young woman why they wore masks, to which she replied truthfully: "We are anarchists."

"The riot," Bhagwati adds, "started about an hour later. Where were the [plain-clothes policemen] who could have asked what I did -- even if they had not read [the anarchist writer] Bakunin, I assume that they would have heard of anarchists -- and done what was necessary to cut off the riot at its inception? Why was Seattle left to its own home-grown devices when Washington should have brought its federal expertise into the town?"

His answer: "Clinton emerges having won the minds and cash of the business community with his China deal [on WTO membership], and having won the hearts and cash of the unions with his destructive grandstanding at Seattle on labor rights. Not bad for the Democratic Party. [But] the WTO and freer trade are another matter." RHEIN-ZEITUNG: The environmentalists knocked on the wrong door

Germany's Rhein-Zeitung daily, published in Koblenz, says in an editorial today: "The collapse in Seattle of WTO talks to launch a trade liberalization round for the new millennium has proved a boost for labor and environmental groups who claimed victory over the WTO by disrupting the meeting and highlighting their causes." The paper adds: "The environmentalists, however, knocked on the wrong door. They should have demonstrated against the International Labor Organization (ILO), the UN organization responsible for labor and environment."

"But," the paper continues, "since the ILO is a paper tiger, [the environmentalists] called on the WTO, which has the power to impose sanctions. Yet trade sanctions against nations without minimum environmental and labor standards would punish poor people in the Third World," the paper allows. " And that," it says "is not just."

TIMES: The debacle in Seattle was not inevitable

The London Times today says that both "political will and WTO reform are required after [the] Seattle [failure]." The paper writes in an editorial: "The debacle in Seattle was not inevitable. The preparatory work in advance of the conference was distinctly unsatisfactory, but had the major delegations decided to proceed further it would have been possible for them to do so. As it was, the US stuck to its stance that any future set of global trade discussions should stick exclusively to those spheres -- agriculture and services -- that had witnessed only partial [WTO reform earlier] but sought a broader trade agenda in return."

In turn, the editorial goes on, "the developing world was enraged when the U.S. suddenly embraced a much firmer stance on labor standards, a shift that appears to be best explained by the domestic demands of the Democratic Party. There will be scant further progress if all sides are not prepared to make those modest moves necessary to initiate another round of trade deliberations. This means that the EU must convince others that it is committed to the radical reform of [its] Common Agricultural Policy soon and the U.S. should reciprocate by acknowledging that there are other domains to which free trade should be extended."

The paper says further: "The developing nations are entitled to some indignation at the brusque manner in which they were often treated last week, but [they] must also be realistic about their economic status. The Third World is, whatever certain demonstrators might have suggested, the single largest beneficiary from a more liberal economic order. They would be unwise to risk that reward through political posturing."

INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNE: The meeting has been surrounded by a fog of intellectual dishonesty

Finally, columnist Reginald Dale writes caustically in the International Tribune today: "Whatever else it may or may not have achieved, the [WTO] ministerial meeting last week in one way set a new record. It is hard to think of another international meeting that has been surrounded by such a fog of intellectual dishonesty and so much plain nonsense."

Dale argues that "much of the false propaganda swirling around Seattle was put about by the demonstrators who tried to stop the talks from taking place. ... One of the striking features of Seattle," he adds," was the way in which protestors against the allegedly undemocratic WTO apparently thought they could prove their point by shutting down the meeting -- thus suppressing any view contrary to their own -- while WTO officials bent over backwards to try to give the demonstrators a hearing."

For Dale, Seattle "showed more clearly than ever that intolerance of other people's views is a far more typical characteristic of people who demonstrate against globalization that of those that support it." He is also critical of President Clinton, who he finds was "badly prepared for Seattle and more interested in domestic politics. ... If trade liberalization is to continue," Dale concludes, "the next U.S. president must assert more decisive international leadership and be more effective in countering false anti-trade propaganda at home."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)