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Western Press Review: Commentators Take Time For Reflection

  • Don Hill



Prague, 27 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- During the news doldrums in the last few days of the year, the century, the millennium, the Western press -- like many individuals -- reflects on a variety of issues concerning the recent past.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: We most likely will see a multiplication of struggles in Europe over the limits of sovereign power

The Wall Street Journal Europe perceives 1999 as a year for rethinking the -- remarkably young -- modern concepts of national sovereignty. Many commentators, the newspaper says in an editorial, write of what they call "traditional sovereignty." But sovereignty as a national element, the editorial says, is a development of the later years of the past millennium.

The Wall Street Journal editorial says this: "The year 1999 started with 11 European countries celebrating the transfer of monetary responsibilities to a central bank in Frankfurt, and ends with Russia earning worldwide condemnation for its brutality in one of its own federated republics, Chechnya. In between, we had, among other events, NATO's bombing of Serbia in retaliation for ethnic cleansing in a Serbian province and EU politicians suddenly reverting to nationalism in the face of a wave of cross-border corporate takeover efforts. The Nobel Peace Price went to a group of courageous doctors and nurses whose banner, Medicins Sans Frontieres, proclaims that they are disdainful of national borders. The assault on traditional concepts of national sovereignty was, in other words, a strong thread running throughout this year."

The editorial concludes with this: "Pluralism and liberalism ensure that politicians are limited in what they can do, whether it's to kill or to tax. In the new millennium, we most likely will see a multiplication of struggles in Europe over the limits of sovereign power as it affects both international relations and economic activity. We can't foresee what forms that will take, but we will continue to try to interpret, as best we can, the further developments as they occur."

NEW YORK TIMES: The worst thing about the Duma election was that it showed how easily the Russian electorate can be manipulated

New York Times' columnist William Safire recalls a television confrontation several years ago in which philanthropist George Soros called Russian industrialist, financier and insider politician Boris Berezovsky a crook. Berezovsky, sitting right there, never even defended himself. He simply smiled, Safire said. Russia's voters in this month's elections chose Boris Berezovsky for parliament.

In a commentary, Safire says this: "The worst thing about the Duma election was that it showed how easily the Russian electorate can be manipulated. Nobody will investigate the suspicion that the bombing of apartment houses [in Moscow and elsewhere] was the work of the KGB taking a leaf from the Gestapo's Reichstag fire. But however caused, those terror attacks and ill-timed Chechen trouble making ignited Russian fear and fury at the dark-skinned, independence-minded Muslims. It gave vengeful Russian generals and the [Russian President Boris Yeltsin's political] family a new lease on political life."

Safire says that war fever has silenced reformers and strengthened Yeltsin's clique. It reduced what little influence the reformist Yabloko party had in the Duma -- its share of the vote fell from eight percent to six percent.

In Safire's words: "Meanwhile, the family and its supporting crooks will lean on American politicians. Last week, under GOP pressure to react to the Chechen massacre, [U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright had to use a national-security law to stop the too-eager James Harmon, president of our taxpayer-supported Export-Import Bank, from guaranteeing a loan to Tyumen Oil, a sleazy Russian operation. Do you wonder why well-connected Boris Berezovsky is smiling as Chechens die at holiday time? Much business remains to be done."

WASHINGTON POST: The basic machinery to conduct a free election is in place

The Washington Post looks forward editorially today to a Croatia without el mano muerte -- the dead hand -- of the late President Franjo Tudjman on the rudder of democracy. It says that Tudjman kept his country in what the editorial calls "a twilight between dictatorship and democracy." Tudjman employed, as the editorial puts it, "the ugly tools of extreme nationalism, thuggery and ethnic prejudice."

The newspaper expresses hope that parliamentary elections scheduled for January 3 may permit a free and fair people's choice of a new president. In the editorial's words: "The basic machinery to conduct a free election is in place. How fairly the government and ruling party behave will go a long way toward determining how quickly Croatia can integrate itself into democratic Europe."

As The Washington Post's editorial puts it: "Most Croatians, it seems fair to say, would like to shed the negative aspects of their reputation stemming from Mr. Tudjman's heavy-handedness and ethnic crimes. The government itself would like to move further from Serbia's pariah status and closer to the Council of Europe and other institutions that represent democracy and market freedoms. But this movement isn't automatic, as U.S. and European officials and election monitors need to make clear."

NEW YORK TIMES: These assistance programs serve important American interests

The New York Times says today in an editorial that U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration acted appropriately when it blocked the Export-Import Bank from providing $500 million in loan guarantees to Tyumen Oil. The state-affiliated Russian company is accused of business practices which cheated foreign companies.

The newspaper reiterates its consistent message, however, that the delay should not become an opening step in a broader disengagement from Russia. In the editorial's words: "Such a retreat would make little sense after the election of a new parliament expected to be more friendly to economic reforms."

The newspaper says approvingly that the U.S. administration continues to resist pressure to scale back other assistance programs to Russia. As the editorial puts it: "These [assistance programs] serve important American interests like reducing nuclear dangers and encouraging democracy and economic reform."

FINANCIAL TIMES: There were famous men who got things spectacularly wrong

The Financial Times, London, comes up with an original twist. Its lead editorial celebrates what the headline calls "the doomsters," in the newspaper's words, "famous men who got things spectacularly wrong."

Among these, says the British financial newspaper, are Thomas Malthus, who said in 1798 that populations would grow so much faster than food supplies that there would be starvation, misery and death. The editorial says this: "He was half right. The world's population has risen six-fold since his day and has been increasing at an average rate of 1.8 per cent a year since 1950, despite birth control. Fortunately, Malthus failed to foresee the astonishing fecundity of science, which increased the efficiency of food production beyond the dreams of the 18th century. The world now produces enough food to eliminate starvation, even with a population of 6,000 million."

Then there's the United States' Lincoln Steffens. As the Financial Times puts it: "His verdict [after a visit to communist Russia in 1919], that 'I have seen the future and it works' attracted much ridicule as it echoed down the decades."

The newspaper said that another off-target futurist, Karl Marx, in the editorial's words, "must gain a seat in the pantheon, for his monumental failure to predict the strength and adaptability of market capitalism. In 1844, he said: 'The worker becomes poorer, the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent.'"

The newspaper recalls also these others:

o Richard Woolley, a former British astronomer royal, who said in 1956 that the notion of space travel was "utter bilge."

o Ernest Rutherford, who said that gaining power from the atom was "utter moonshine."

o James Ussher, the 17th century Irish archbishop who calculated that the world would end in 1996.

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