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Western Press Review: Corruption, France, Austria

By Susan Caskie

Prague, 30 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today ranges over a variety of subjects. Our selection looks at corruption in post-communist countries, the contrary stances taken recently by France, and EU sanctions against Austria.


In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal Europe declares encouragingly that, ten years after the fall of communism in Europe, "Western investment is there to stay. But," the paper goes on to warn, "that doesn't mean certain countries haven't built up a reputation for allowing corruption, a lack of transparency, or the local unwritten rules of the game to give potential investors second thoughts about sinking deep roots into the local economy."

The editorial cites a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing this week on the treatment of American businesses in former communist states. Government and business leaders testified that in many of those countries, a lack of clear laws to protect the rights of foreign businesses mean that corruption has a free hand.

The newspaper seizes on the case of Central European Media Enterprises (CME), a media company run by former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Ron Lauder, of the famous cosmetics family. Required to take on a local partner, Lauder's company teamed up with Vladimir Zelezny, to found the Czech Republic's first private television station, TV Nova, in 1994. The paper notes, "Last year, after Mr. Zelezny was fired as general director of CME's Czech subsidiary over alleged financial irregularities, he seized control of TV Nova and began broadcasting his own mix of programs. CME effectively lost its business."

The editorial says the Czech government's Media Council "encouraged CME's original investment, but has taken a hands-off approach in the commercial dispute, which is now before an arbitration board in Stockholm. Czech officials claim the Media Council isn't part of the executive branch of the government so their hands are tied."

The editorial says foreign investors in the Czech Republic could conclude from that case that they have no chance against a Czech citizen in case of a business dispute.

In the words of the Wall Street Journal: "The message coming out of this week's Senate hearing is that it's clearly in the interest of the Czechs and other governments in Central and Eastern Europe to take swift and sure action when complaints by reputable investors are made. That's not to say that foreign investors are always in the right," the paper continues. "But the perception that the playing field is tilted against them can erode confidence among Western firms, who have many investment choices in today's global economy."


Two commentaries look at France's recent positioning of itself as a maverick, unafraid to buck the trend. The Wall Street Journal Europe says that when France this week refused to sign the democracy declaration agreed to by 106 other countries, it was again asserting its right to pursue its national interests. "It may be time, therefore," the editorial says, "to take a closer look at what exactly this term, often invoked by Paris, may mean."

The newspaper muses that all democratic countries should ideally have the same interest in creating a legal framework that would allow citizens to lead peaceful, happy and meaningful lives. But then it notes: "While citizens of one country might broadly welcome the universal expansion of democratic values, those of another may be more concerned with the role their nation and culture play on the international scene. Given French foreign policy, it's fair to assume that the government has identified France's place in the world as a key popular concern."

And the Wall Street Journal says France is defining its place in the world as a leader against what it perceives as U.S. hegemony. "In its dissent to the democracy declaration," the paper says, "the French government was effectively telling others who also mistrust the U.S. to rally to its cause. Being seen as the leader of a world group of dissenters would indeed give Paris a global role to play."

The paper argues that France's tactic has backfired, and that it is not in fact alienating other governments. The Wall Street Journal says an annoyed Polish diplomat told the paper: "In football terms, this was World 106, France 1."

"No one, in short, is rallying to France's opposite pole," the editorial concludes. "Even if one accepts the questionable premise that the average Frenchman stays awake at night worrying about France's global influence, this may not be the best way to achieve it."


In the International Herald Tribune, commentator Flora Lewis writes of France's opposition to a federal superstate in Europe. The need for a European constitution, she says, which France acknowledges, is also a need for a federated structure.

Lewis says that this week when President Jacques Chirac visited Berlin, he was careful to avoid the term federation. He advocated creating a constitution that would define institutions and guarantee human rights, and said that in the meantime closer integration could proceed between all member states that desired it.

But that, in Lewis's words, "would make it much harder to duck the issue of a federal versus a nation-state based structure, so that the question would be addressed in practical terms even as the constitution writers shaped their clauses."

She notes that the coming expansion of the EU will be much easier if the union already has a constitution of federal states. "The union," she says, "simply could not work the way it is with so many, and the risk of regression to a mere customs area would be strong. If there already were a constitution like those of federal states such as America or Germany, the inclusion of more members would be relatively easy," she continues. "They would simply adopt the rules, receive the privileges and recognize a pole of allegiance which the constitution represents."

Chirac said in Berlin this week, in his words: "We will not allow the European project to be undone,'' adding this important caveat, "neither you nor we envisage the creation of a European superstate that would substitute for our nation-states."

"No doubt," responds Lewis, "but his own call for a constitution to be endorsed by the voters and for a pioneer group to push the pace reflects the irresistible impulse that the vision of Europe provokes to create a new reality." She concludes: "Despite all the embarrassments of transforming that misty idea into hard facts of everyday life for politicians as well as voters, a more organized, more conscious Europe is coming now."


The Strasbourg-based French daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace comments on the decision yesterday by the European Court of Human Rights to appoint a three-member panel to monitor the human rights situation in Austria. The monitoring would be a preliminary step prior to a decision by the EU on whether to lift the political sanctions against Austria. "This solution is skillful," commentator Jean-Claude Kiefer says. "It allows each side to save face."

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel accepted this compromise, in Kiefer's words, "because he well knows that a judicial commission specializing in human rights will only be able to note one fact: Austria is persecuting nobody. Even if [far-right party leader] Joerg Haider persists in his execrable verbal shenanigans."

But the decision could have an unforeseen effect, the commentator says. It has already led to discord within Austria's governing coalition. Haider's party, unlike its coalition partners, rejects the idea of being judged by the EU. "The Austrian populists," Kiefer says, "are trying to reconquer public opinion by transforming their current xenophobia into Europhobia."

The coalition could break apart over this question, the French commentator posits. "But," he says, "we are not there yet." He notes that Schuessel committed himself in principle to a referendum to determine the future of Austria in the EU if sanctions were not lifted by today. "Nobody wants that," says Kiefer, "because in the current climate it could turn into a disaster for Europe."


Writing in Austria's Die Presse, commentator Wolfgang Boehm says Austria feels as discouraged as the Portuguese national football team must have felt when a fateful penalty went against it on Wednesday. "All attempts to ward off the scrutiny of outsiders -- however it is termed -- have proved fruitless. Austria will be judged by three wise men."

Boehm says the only bit of good news is that the three judges will be named by Luzius Wildhaber, the president of the European Court of Human Rights and a Swiss citizen. Austrian Chancellor Schuessel will certainly cooperate with him.

"But it's a great pity," Boehm adds, "that [Schuessel] is now forced to carry out his completely absurd plan for a referendum on the sanctions." He says the three wise men will "in all likelihood find no Austrian government violations of the rights of minorities, refugees, or immigrants. For while the restrictive policy toward foreigners in Austria can certainly be criticized, in comparison with the policies of other EU countries it doesn't stand out [as especially bad]."

But there is another aspect of Austrian policy that the three wise men are supposed to judge, Boehm says, and that is the nature of the Freedom Party. "It is hardly to be doubted," he notes, "that here criticism will be levied on the party's campaign and on the unacceptable statements of some of its politicians. Whether this part of the report will give governments like those of France and Belgium sufficient argument to retain the sanctions in their present form, however, is more than questionable." What will help decide the matter, he concludes, is the behavior of the Freedom Party ahead of the referendum.