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1999 In Review: Top 1999 News Events Reveal Shrinking World

  • Don Hill



In retrospect, 1999's major news stories combine into intricately inter-related groupings rather than divide into individual events. Chechnya, Kosovo, NATO, even a killer earthquake in Turkey, affected and involved each other. As part of RFE/RL's year-end series, correspondent Don Hill dissects the major and intertwined events of the year now passing.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The world never seemed so small a place as it did in 1999.

From East Timor in the South Pacific to Central Europe to Latin America, the major news events merged with each other.

In his State of the Union message to Congress in January, U.S. President Bill Clinton cited by name Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden as an exemplar of world terrorism. Clinton referred approvingly to the previous year's U.S. missile strikes on bin Laden's reputed headquarters in Afghanistan, a country with which the United States was not at war. Many people regarded bin Laden as one manifestation of a worldwide increase in Islamic activism. Confrontation and accommodation between Islamic nations and the West remained a news theme throughout the year.

In mid-February, Turkey captured Abdullah Ocalan, leader of a major faction of rebel Turkish Kurds known as the PKK. Three-and-a-half months later, a Turkish court convicted him on terrorism charges and sentenced him to death. At the time of his arrest, Ocalan was traveling with a Greek-Cypriot passport and had just emerged from shelter in the Greek ambassador's residence in Nairobi. Both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The name of NATO appeared in headiness all during 1999, with Greek-Turkish relations just one part of the mix.

NATO accepted into full membership on March 12 -- over Russian objections -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said that the accession amounted for the three nations, in his phrase, a "return to the free world."

Also over Russian objections, NATO in March began air strikes against Serbian installations and military, intended to halt a rampage by Serb forces in Kosovo against Kosovar-Albanians. Earlier, Serb negotiators had rejected a peace plan for Kosovo worked out by Western leaders with Russian input at the Rambouillet chateau near Paris.

By April, NATO's eagerly awaited 50th anniversary observance in the United States had metamorphosed from a celebration into a somber ceremony overshadowed by Kosovo.

When a Spanish judge added 33 new counts in March to crimes against humanity charges against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, that may have seemed an event isolated from world news currents. British authorities kept Pinochet under arrest in London while considering a Spanish court's request to extradite him. Some international political scientists declared the Pinochet case as one of several indicators that the world was developing an international conscience, that condemnation of egregious violations of human rights henceforth would reach across national boundaries. Other indicators, many concluded, were the work of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, NATO's intervention in Kosovo, and international involvement in East Timor.

NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia continued through May and, on May 7, U.S. warplanes struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three and wounding 20. Embarrassed U.S. officials said the attack was accidental.

At the beginning of June, the Yugoslav regime of President Slobodan Milosevic relented, accepting a peace accord that included a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. A fortnight later, a Russian military unit surprised NATO by entering Kosovo ahead of NATO troops and occupying the Pristina airport.

All through the year, commercial interests and national leaders continued years of jockeying over rich Central Asian and Caucasian oil and natural gas reserves, largely undeveloped. The jockeying involved shifting alliances, with Russia at their core on one side and the United States at their core on another. Other players included Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Greece, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the Russian breakaway region of Chechnya, and even China.

That's why, when in July political leaders and analysts assessed NATO's performance in Kosovo and its early aftermath, many in Russia and some in the West believed that one U.S. motive for backing the intervention -- besides humanitarianism -- involved an interest in projecting U.S. power into the Caucasus.

In August, thousands of Serbians began a series of anti-Milosevic protests. The U.S. applauded. In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians proved to be difficult allies for NATO. Individuals and organized groups began murderous ethnic-cleansing assaults on Serb families, Roma (gypsies) and other minorities as ferocious -- though not as numerous nor as organized -- as Serb forces had earlier mounted against them.

Later in the year, internationally-honored Kosovar-Albanian editor Baton Haxhiu would say that there were only losers and no winners of NATO's war over Kosovo. Not the Serbs, of course. Not the Kosovar Albanians. Not even NATO. As Haxhiu put it, "Even if [NATO] is the military winner, it is a moral loser." Also a loser, in his words, "is the international community who promised that Bosnia or Croatia would not happen again, and failed."

Also in August, Russian President Boris Yeltsin dismissed Prime Minister Sergei Stephashin and named the young, little-known Vladimir Putin as his choice not only to be prime minister but also to be the next Russian president. The State Duma confirmed Putin easily. The significance of this development emerged only gradually.

Later in the month, with Putin's backing, the Russian military crushed an incursion from Chechnya into the neighboring republic of Dagestan.

The following month, in retaliation for Dagestan and bombings of apartment buildings in Russian cities, blamed by the government on Chechens, Russian forces launched an air and ground campaign in Chechnya.

There were obvious ironies here. Russian leaders defended their actions by likening them to those of NATO in Serbia, although they had severely condemned NATO's behavior at the time. The West condemned Russia for using what Western spokespeople called "excessive and indiscriminate force" in Chechnya. And Russian generals, mindful of their forces' humiliation at the hands of Chechen rebels in an earlier war, vowed not to repeat their previous mistakes.

The West cited human rights. Russia -- and China, which was one of the few nations to support the Russian campaign in Chechnya -- spoke of anti-terrorism. Russia and China united in charging that the West was using human rights as an excuse for intruding in other nations' internal affairs.

Back in August, a huge killer earthquake rattled Turkey and left an early death count exceeding 13,000. The international community, including Greece, immediately poured massive aid into Turkey. Grateful Turks were particularly moved by the Greek generosity. It appeared that a thaw in ancient hostilities might be in progress.

Internationalism and international intrusion into national affairs again became a focus in September. Residents of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. Indonesian militias went on a rampage. UN workers and other foreigners fled. By the 15th, the United Nations had approved an Australian-led peace force.

Half way around the world, Ehud Barak, who had succeeded nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under U.S. pressure, agreed to begin talks preparatory to "final" Mideast peace negotiations.

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, international mediation appeared finally to be making strides in negotiating a settlement of a tenacious dispute over Azerbaijan's breakaway ethnic Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. But in October, a squad of gunmen led by a former Armenian journalist burst into the Armenian Parliament and gunned down Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and seven others. Not only the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations were cast into doubt, but also the whole delicate balance in the Caucasus region.

As the year draws to a close, the outcome of most of the links in this tangled chain of events remain open. The U.S. State Department announced in December that teams of terrorists had been dispatched by Osama bin Laden's terrorist group into Europe and the Mideast to attack U.S.-related targets. Officials in one Mideastern country actually arrested one such alleged group with what the officials said were plans to bomb a large international hotel.

Russia is meeting stiff resistance in Chechnya reminiscent of the previous Chechen war. NATO's KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo is still failing to stop murders and lesser abuses against minorities by Kosovar Albanians. EU leaders, at a summit meeting, recently joined their voices to other critics of the Western performance in Kosovo.

Pinochet remains in London, his extradition in doubt. Turkey -- under pressure from international condemnation and their own hopes of entering the capital-punishment-averse-European Union -- is struggling with what to do about Kurdish leader Ocalan. UN peacekeepers remain in East Timor.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have turned their attention from joining NATO to joining the EU. At an EU summit in December, EU member nations granted candidate status to six new countries -- Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and the Mediterranean island of Malta. They join six other prospective members -- Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Cyprus -- already engaged in membership talks. The EU also invited Turkey to become a candidate but insisted on an improvement in its human rights record.

U.S. President Bill Clinton is approaching his January 2000 State of the Union speech having weathered an impeachment trial.

And, if anything, the world is shrinking still more rapidly.

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