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Western Press Review: Prague Demos, Danish Vote, Yugoslavia

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 27 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-IMF and World Bank demonstrations in Prague, Denmark's referendum tomorrow on joining the euro and developments in Yugoslavia attract the attention of commentary and editorial writers in the Western press today.


Italy's La Stampa points to the ironies confronting Czech President Vaclav Havel -- a one-time dissident who has voiced sympathy for some of the anti-globalization demonstrators in Prague -- but now acts as commander-in-chief of his country's armed forces. The tables have turned, the paper writes: "War was waged yesterday in Havel-administered Prague: tear gas, water cannons, helmets, shields against batons. [On] one side, the police of the ex-dissidents -- the same in their uniforms, their faces, the chains of their dogs and their gestures -- as the police which once arrested people like Havel as counter-revolutionary agents."

But, the paper notes further, ironies could also be found on the protestors' side: "On the other side," it says, "colorful children (and certainly also visionaries) of the world from the other side of the Wall, who incarnate the contradictions of defying McDonald's on [Prague's] Wenceslas Square. [It]t was truly a piece of theater which not even Havel could have imagined..."


All mainstream Czech dailies roundly condemn yesterday's violence in the streets of Prague, which was provoked, they say, to a large extent by a radical core of foreign demonstrators -- leaving local residents the task of cleaning up.

The newspaper Lidove Noviny writes in its commentary today: "Globalization has arrived. Greeks, Italians, Americans, New Zealanders and Turks rejected capitalism in the streets of Prague. They were joyful, dancing around and very romantic! They breathed in the atmosphere of world revolution in great gulps. And we -- whether we wanted to or not -- breathed along with them."

"Then came violence," the paper continues "The romantic heroes wrecked windows, cars, shops and restaurants. They took revenge on the property of Praguers, regardless of their tax bracket. We don't think that's very romantic. The police behaved bravely. But it couldn't perform a miracle. [Czech Interior] Minister [Stanislav] Gross safeguarded the bankers, but not the center of Prague."


Spain's El Pais steps back from the immediacy of the street protests and muses on the future of the IMF in more general terms: "In recent years, a variety of observers have been questioning the recent activities of the International Monetary Fund. Sometimes, the criticism goes as far as to question the mere existence of the IMF or to demand a redefinition of its functions. A part of this critique," the paper says, "is founded on the increasingly vague territory of the activity of the IMF, which often overlaps that of its sister organization, the World Bank. While the World Bank sticks to its original aims, the tasks of the IMF remain a considerable distance from those recommended in Bretton Woods [in the United States, where it was founded in the 1940s]."

The paper notes that, when the two institutions were set up "the World Bank's task was to collect the capital necessary to promote long-term development, [while] the IMF was to be active in keeping monetary stability and the balance of payments going through capital operations in the short term. Since then, the IMF has refocused its activity to the area of designing and adjusting plans for developing countries and economies in transition."

El Pais remarks that this has not always worked for the best: "The intrusion of the IMF in its new tasks has not always been successful. The strictness of its interventions in some Latin-American countries, the succession of negative experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and the disappointing role it played in Russia became the foundation for a powerful criticism of the institution. An analysis of the organization's past activity," it adds, "makes clear that it is necessary to make changes in the ways the institution works. [What] the IMF needs," it concludes, "is a genuine adaptation to the conditions for stability in developing countries, which demand more long-term loan plans to back up necessary micro-economic reforms, reinforce social cohesion and preserve the institutional frame that makes the reforms viable."


The Spanish newspaper ABC writes: "The anti-capitalist radicalism of the troublemakers of Seattle and, more recently, of Prague, is the worst of therapies -- as well intentioned as it sometimes may be. The solution is closer to the spirit of the exemplary declaration made yesterday by President Vaclav Havel [at the IMF-World Bank meetings. He] put the blame for our hardships on the predominance of a global atheistic civilization and called for a search for spirituality and a new system of values. Finally," the paper sums up, "the question is not whether we need globalization or not. The question is what kind of globalization we want and what are the values we want it to follow. "


In Denmark, newspapers focus on tomorrow's national referendum on whether to join the European Union's single currency, the euro. The daily Information runs two editorials, one entitled "Yes" and the other "No." Here's an excerpt from the "Yes" column:

"A basic problem inherent in the euro-model is that economic cooperation should pave the way for political teamwork. To put it in another way, the euro should lead to greater political union. But at the same time, to put it mildly, the euro has turned out to be a hasty political project. No one can predict with certainty whether the euro will be able to survive its current predicament in the international financial markets or whether it is viable enough to pull through an international crisis of greater proportions. But," the affirmative column goes on, "to vote 'no' tomorrow will not remove any of the threats that a 'yes' vote will introduce -- because Denmark cannot vote reality out of existence. It would be as naive to believe that adoption of the euro would insure us against the low tides of the international economic situation as it would be silly to think that by voting 'no' Denmark can change the course of things. The [EU's Economic and Monetary Union, or] EMU can be criticized from many points of view, but it is not in Denmark's interest to stay out of it. To involve ourselves wholeheartedly in the European debate is the better option."

And here is an excerpt from Information's "No" column:

"When we go to the polls tomorrow, we will have a unique opportunity to start on a unique economic and political cooperation project with the same countries with which we fought a war with just 55 years ago. It is almost unbelievable that just 50 years after France's Foreign Minister Robert Schuman laid the foundations of what was later to evolve into the EU we are talking of when -- not whether -- to accept the central and eastern European states as members. To put it in a nutshell, the EU project is grandiose."

The negative view continues: " But the 'no' camp in Denmark has consistently produced the scarecrow of the United States of Europe to convince voters that subscribing to it would mean loss of national sovereignty -- the right to decide what is best for yourself in your own home. [In so doing,] the 'no' camp has failed to take into consideration that the EU is what its members agree upon. There is no set order in the European House. The only thing we know for sure is that the house is getting larger. It is precisely because of the dimensions and grandeur of the European House that we should be thinking twice about its architecture," the "No" column concludes. "By accepting the EMU we will be getting rid of one of the fundaments of national sovereignty -- a monopoly to issue our own money. To be able to get involved in a really democratic debate about EU's next step, we should have respect for healthy skepticism. Vote 'No.'"


Britain's Times also focuses on the Danish referendum, in an editorial entitled "A Momentous Vote." The paper writes: "The people of Denmark have their chance, -- one that the politicians of the existing euro-zone never deigned, or dared, to make available to their voters -- to say 'nej' or 'ja' to joining the EU's Economic and Monetary Union. The more the Danes have thought about the euro, the less convinced they have appeared to be," the paper says. "The 'yes' camp started out well ahead in opinion polls, only to see a precipitous fall off of support. [On] the economics [of the matter], voters have been hard to persuade that joining is the only safe course."

But the Times reminds its readers that more than economics is at stake: "By far the most important factor has been the politics, not the economics, of EMU," it argues. "The Danes see clearly that this is not just a question of swapping the krone for the euro, to which their currency is already pegged, but of voting for a political project whose logical conclusion is some kind of European government."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Finally, Yugoslavia's elections continue to elicit commentary, as the world waits to see whether President Slobodan Milosevic accepts defeat at the ballot box or unleashes the army and police against his opponents. Commentator Anna Husarska, writing for the International Herald Tribune, says: "[Milosevic] may try to cling to power for another two weeks, claiming that a runoff in the presidential ballot is necessary, or until July 2001 when his mandate expires, as some of his people are suggesting. He may also try to cheat, but the gap between what his party claims and what the opposition claims is too big for any cheating to bridge. If Serbs have the least instinct of self-preservation, they will not allow the momentum started at the ballot boxes to be lost."

Husarska's commentary continues: "With Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the [ultranationalist] Serbian Radical Party, and Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, who fielded other presidential candidates, having offered their resignations, the scene seems uniquely clear and adequate for a united front of rejection of Mr. Milosevic. When wounded, dictators tend to attack," she adds. "So Mr. Milosevic's use of force against his own nation cannot be excluded. Mr. Kostunica, the apparent president-elect who has already announced demonstrations, is right: They should go on for as long as it takes. The advice to the Serbian people is, 'Don't let him off the hook,' even if this costs some bloody noses, sweaty backs and eyes stinging from tear gas. Dictators do not go easily," she concludes. "But eventually they go."

(Aurora Gallego and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to our report.)