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Western Press Review: Yugoslavia, Russia, Germany

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 7 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our selection of Western press commentary today and over the weekend focuses on three countries: Yugoslavia, Russia, and Germany. Analysts examine Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's latest moves, assess the state of Russia four months after Vladimir Putin's inauguration as president and two years after the financial crash that sent the ruble tumbling. There are also some comments about the continuing manifestations of far-right violence in Germany.


In a weekend commentary for the Washington Post (published today in the IHT), the paper's foreign-affairs columnist Jim Hoagland says that "just waiting for Milosevic to go away won't do." He writes: "Mr. Milosevic clings to power in Belgrade with a tenacity and a ruthlessness that should remind a distracted world of the human capacity for evil, and of the difficulty of confronting it effectively. [His] latest power grab," Hoagland writes, "occurred late last month when he forced through constitutional changes that will guarantee him re-election as president of 'Yugoslavia' in balloting on September 24. In a single stroke, he betrayed his erstwhile Montenegrin allies and his fellow Serbs exactly as he betrayed Croats and Bosnians a decade earlier."

The commentator goes on to say: "Mr. Milosevic will in his own mind rule Serbia, or he will destroy it. More than likely, he will wind up doing both." This, Hoagland argues, "is what Mr. Milosevic has done in Croatia, in Bosnia and also in Kosovo, where he forced the United States and its allies to mount belatedly and with great difficulty history's first military defense of human rights."

Hoagland adds: "[Milosevic] now repeats the pattern by pitting Serbia against Montenegro, the other republic in the rump Yugoslav state, which was stripped of political power in this misbegotten union by Mr. Milosevic's changes. And he serves fresh notice on his opponents in Serbia that he will never accept peaceful democratic change at home." The commentary concludes with a warning: "Mr. Milosevic has confirmed [the doubtfulness of the strategy of waiting for him to leave office] with his [recent] assault on Montenegro in its federation with Serbia. Another explosion is imminent, and once again America and Europe pretend not to see."


In a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung titled "Prisoners of Propaganda," Bernard Kueppers tries to explain the arrest last week by Yugoslav army soldiers of several Westerners in Montenegro -- two of them British members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Kosovo, another two Dutch. He writes: "As far as Belgrade was concerned, the Dutchmen were apparently planning to kidnap President Slobodan Milosevic. [The Britons] had allegedly been training the Montenegrin police force in how to carry out acts of sabotage."

Kueppers then says that "the most likely real explanation is that the Dutchmen were looking forward to a white-knuckle adventure holiday, while the others simply wanted to relax and soak up some sun on the Adriatic coast. But," he adds, "for the Belgrade propaganda machine, they provided ample evidence that the West is after Milosevic's scalp and is preparing Montenegro's police force for imminent civil war."

He continues: "Milosevic is waging a war against 'traitors' with a view to securing his re-election on September 24. His recent reform of the constitution resulted in Serbian opposition parties squabbling among themselves. [His] arrest of foreign [alleged] terrorists is part of a strategy of intimidation with which he hopes to persuade the West it can no longer afford to ignore him."


Three U.S. dailies carry editorials on Russia. The Washington Times today writes of what it calls President Vladimir Putin's effective "muzzling of the press."

The paper says: "Mr. Putin may be able to charm world leaders, whom he has impressed with his smooth demeanor and grasp of economics, but that is only one side of the coin of Russian leadership in the Putin era. Russia's new president," it adds, "has fine-tuned his ability to intimidate his people at home, using seemingly legitimate economic arguments to silence dissent. To the chagrin of all the world leaders who have long downplayed Mr. Putin's extensive KGB credentials, Mr. Putin is amassing powers of suppression reminiscent of Soviet day."

That, the editorial goes on, is particularly true of Russia's media, which it calls "a favorite target for Mr. Putin since he stepped in as acting president on January 1 of this year. Among his first decisions in office," it says, "was to arrest a Radio Liberty reporter, [Andrei Babitsky,] whose stories out of Chechnya told of Russian horrors perpetrated against the population there. This was clearly a sign of things to come."

The paper adds: "Another of Mr. Putin's key targets has been Vladimir Gusinsky's media conglomerate, Media-MOST. The company is Russia's last bastion of independent reporting," the Washington Times says, "and has been the Kremlin's most vocal critic. The Russian government has not been amused. In May, Mr. Putin made a clumsy, high-profile strike against his perceived adversary."

"Since then," the editorial adds, "Mr. Putin has significantly sharpened his skill for intimidation. [According] to a Russian official, a state-controlled company [Gazprom] was in negotiations to acquire the media company, [which owes it] almost $400 million. Mr. Gusinsky is reportedly coming under intense pressure to repay [the debt] immediately." It concludes: "Hopefully, someone with deep pockets will step in to bail out Mr. Gusinsky. If not, Mr. Putin's powers will become even more irresistible."


Over the weekend (Aug. 5), another paper in the U.S. capital -- The Washington Post -- assessed the state of Russia's economy two years after the country's 1998 financial crash. It notes that Vladimir Putin is moving to reign in elected officials and limit press freedom, but, it adds, "on the economic front there is better news. [Gross national product] grew by 3.2 percent last year and is now growing at an annual rate of about 8 percent. This news," the paper says, "raises a question about the quality of Western economic advice to Russia."

Two years ago, the editorial recalls, many Western economists questioned the wisdom of Russia's effective devaluation of the ruble [when it allowed the currency to fall in value. Economists] from the U.S. Treasury and the [International Monetary Fund, or IMF] predicted that would bring all manner of disasters -- roaring inflation, capital flight, budget chaos and a return to Soviet-era economic policies. But now that Russia's economy is sailing along," the paper argues, "a different question may be posed: Why did the economists resist devaluation in the first place?"

There's little doubt, the editorial goes, that "Western advisers did exaggerate devaluation's bad consequences. [Yet,] it warns, critics of the IMF and the Clinton administration [should] beware. Even though Russia's economy is doing much better, devaluation was probably bad for it and certainly no miracle remedy for other emerging economies."

The paper sums up: "Rather than go for the short-term boost of devaluation, [it] is nearly always better to strengthen the economy by other methods. Western advisers have been urging Russia to improve its tax collection, restructure its energy sector and undertake other hard reforms. This advice was a sound alternative to devaluation two years ago, and it remains a sound way to reinforce the recent upbeat economic news from Russia."


In an editorial yesterday (Sunday), the New York Times says that Putin "has been a man in motion since his inauguration in May. He has," writes the paper, "curbed the power of Russia's regional governors, confronted the business moguls who control large pieces of the economy, proposed a flat tax and fired a gaggle of generals. But," the editorial adds, "just where Putin is headed remains uncertain. So far, much of the action seems more clearly aimed at rebuilding a strong central government than at advancing democracy and reform."

The paper continues: "Given the powerful centrifugal forces that have long tugged against Russian statehood, and the chaotic and corrupt administration of many regions in recent years, there is reason to construct an effective federal government. But as Putin draws power back to the Kremlin, the temptation to fashion a new autocracy will be great, especially for a man steeped in the ethic of the KGB, where he worked for many years."

"For now," the editorial says, "Putin's authority is partly checked. He had to settle for less control than he wanted with both the governors and the businessmen. His dismissal [late last month] of six generals allied with Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev suggested he could not fire Sergeyev himself in a dispute over military policy. But," the paper concludes, "as he learns to wield the nearly dictatorial powers that the [Boris] Yeltsin-era constitution gives him, Putin will have to decide whether he intends to build a durable democracy or just rebuild the machinery of state."


Two European dailies -- one German, one Danish -- run comments today voicing concern over renewed violence by Germany's far right in the country's eastern region. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Hans Barbier warns that, in his words, "business leaders are sounding the alarm [about these new acts of violence]." He goes on: "Spokesmen of banks and corporations fear that the economic rift between eastern and western Germany will deepen if the country is not able to control widespread xenophobia in eastern Germany. Those who claim that business is only concerned with [money] underestimate the value of the current efforts of business for potential victims of hatred against foreigners."

Barbier continues: "Business leaders are not simply moaning over eastern Germany as a place to do business. They also don't want to be blamed for the persecution of those very people who they would like to see work there. It may sound like business is asking the government to throw around the weight of its security forces. But," he asks, "is this really so bad?"

Barbier also asks: "Does anybody really think that efforts such as increasing the number of ping-pong tables in eastern Germany's youth centers will help reform the legions of violent youths? Under normal circumstances," he adds, "business stands by its motto: the less government the better. But the issue at hand has to do with the safety of acutely threatened people," he argues. "The business community is issuing a valid and necessary reminder to the government that it has a duty to protect [them]."


In Denmark, Politiken runs an editorial on "Communism's Legacy" in eastern Germany. The paper says: "Ironically, it is not the Nazis, but the former [German Democratic Republic's] communists that are creating the current problems involving street violence against foreigners. While for 50 years West German citizens lived in a democratic culture and developed the checks and balances essential to a real democracy, East Germany's variety of communism went unchallenged."

The paper goes on: "Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is clear that many in eastern Germany lack the democratic perspective and experience of their western compatriots, and that it will take time -- perhaps a couple of generations -- for the two Germanies to become one democratic culture."

It also says: "The most unpleasant thing about right-wing extremism -- not only in Germany but in the rest of the European Union as well-- is that it cannot be explained by the usual social, political or economic reasons. Xenophobia and right-wing extremism," the editorial argues, "seem to thrive not only among the unemployed and those with little income from work. Rather, they seem to be the product of a conscious choice of attitude, of an ideology created by people who don't in fact have any serious material problems."

The editorial concludes: "Today's Nazism does not require mass unemployment and economic crises to recruit followers -- even though it is clear that an economic crisis would enhance the phenomenon and that the uncertainty generated by globalization strengthens the extreme right's faith in steel-hard ideals and arguments."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)