Prague, 21 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two subjects elicit much of the commentary in the Western press today. First, analysts are concerned with the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank -- which are now underway in the Czech capital Prague -- and related economic issues. Second, commentators look to Yugoslavia's presidential, parliamentary and local elections Sunday (Sept 24) as a possible turning point for the country's long-time leader, Slobodan Milosevic.
In a commentary for the Washington Post (published by the IHT today), economist Robert Samuelson discusses a report on global poverty issued in Prague this week by the World Bank. He writes: "The aim seems to have been to demonstrate that big reductions are possible, but it gives just the opposite impression: Large parts of the world seem impervious to sustained, rapid economic growth -- globalization's reach is limited. The question of why," he adds, "will preoccupy the economic and finance ministers now gathering in Prague for the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund," or IMF.
Samuelson goes on: "Globalization's opponents say that the benefits of growth did not flow to the poorest of the poor, [For them,] greedy multinational companies and corrupt local elites are grabbing all the gains. This sounds good," he says, "but [it] is untrue. The World Bank concludes: 'In the vast majority of cases, growth led to rising consumption in the poorest fifth of the population, while economic decline led to falling consumption.'"
"Globalization's boosters," the commentary continues, "claim [poverty] has been stymied. [They say too that] many countries abstained from reforms -- or botched them. True. Africa largely missed the process. In Russia, the dismantling of the command-and-control economy enriched local elites through corrupt 'privatization' programs."
All this, Samuelson says, raises the basic questions: "Why did some countries reject reforms? Why did they fail elsewhere? What explains the [differences]?" His tentative answer falls outside the economic sphere: "Perhaps culture. The gospel of capitalism presumes that human nature is constant," he writes. "Given the proper incentives -- the ability to profit from hard work and risk taking -- people will strive."
He then says: "Maybe not. [As] a result of history, tradition and religion, some societies cannot easily adopt capitalist attitudes and institutions. Even when they try, they often fail because it is so unnatural. [Individual cultures, he concludes, are] constantly colliding with rampant global capitalism. This is a defining conflict of the new century."
Britain's Financial Times also focuses on poverty in developing nations. It writes in an editorial on debt relief for the Third World: "[Last year,] under pressure from non-governmental organizations, and confronted by the realities of poverty, the [Group of Seven leading industrial countries, or G-7] summit admitted the weaknesses of [an earlier] initiative drawn up by the World Bank and the IMF. But," the paper adds, "as protestors prepare for Prague, it seems that the creditors have still proved slow learners. For all the changes since [the G-7's meeting,] they have not grasped the fundamental realities of the continuing burden of external debt."
The editorial acknowledges that "much has happened over the past year. The bank and the fund have changed the terms of the heavily indebted poor countries' plan. Under the enhanced terms, [there] is a stronger link between debt relief and poverty reduction, and the size of debt relief will double [to $28 billion]."
But, the paper argues, "these changes [do] not go far enough. [Debt] relief applied [in 12 cases] shows that some of the world's poorest countries will continue to transfer more to their creditors than they are able to invest in basic services." The paper calls for additional relief, saying: "Creditors must be prepared to wipe the slate clean of the mistakes and calamities of the past. Only then will those desperately poor countries have a reasonable chance of doing better in future."
Turning to Sunday's Yugoslav presidential election, an editorial in the Irish Times says flatly: "Simple arithmetic suggests defeat for President Slobodan Milosevic. [His] opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, is at least 10 points ahead in the opinion polls with just four days to go." The paper quickly adds, however: "Mr. Milosevic [does] not operate within straightforward parameters, such as respect for the will of the people. He and his supporters have rigged elections in the past and there is little reason to suspect that they will not do so again."
The editorial says further that "there are enough opportunities to allow [Milosevic to] change the mathematics of the situation. Yugoslavia's junior partner, the republic of Montenegro, has defiantly refused to organize the elections on its territory. This stance, initially a courageous one, may now rebound on Montenegro's president Milo Djukanovic, as it gives the Milosevic regime an opportunity to falsify results. Similarly," the paper says, "the decision to hold the elections in Kosovo, where most ethnic Albanians are expected to abstain, presents a further opportunity for [fraud]. Reports are also coming through of false polling stations in southern Serbia."
The editorial sums up: "A Milosevic 'victory' could be followed by an attempt to oust Mr. Djukanovic in Montenegro, a move against which the West might be unable to respond effectively. Only hopelessly committed optimists expect Mr. Milosevic to accept defeat in a democratic manner. He is not, after all, a democrat."
In a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Peter Muench writes of Yugoslavia today: "[It] has collapsed ethnically, geographically and politically. It has become nothing more than a vehicle to which the clique centered around President Slobodan Milosevic still clings in the interests of its own power and self-perpetuation."
But, he adds -- echoing the Irish Times -- even "this [state of chronic decay can] be turned to the president's advantage. Although [Montenegro] has long since freed itself from the noose of Belgrade's apron strings, the practical upshot of this has been President Milo Djukanovic's call for a boycott of the elections. Likewise in Kosovo," he adds, "the potential for fraud is enormous."
Muench says that the result of what he calls Sunday's "fantasy election [will] have very real consequences. [Two] things remain beyond doubt," he argues. "Milosevic cannot abdicate power because this would cost him his freedom, if not his life. Furthermore, in his world, it is not opinion polls which count, nor even the casting of the vote, but how the votes are added up, and where and by whom."
Writing in the Spanish daily El Mundo, Antonio Gala describes Milosevic in these terms: "A dictator who carries out a personal coup d'etat to assure himself of greater power and stricter control. A dictator who invents a constitution equal to his own small-mindedness. A dictator who continues to told the reins of
power as he wishes. A dictator enthroned on his own vanity who has filled his people's veins with corruption."
The commentator then says: "It's difficult to believe that a man like this would resign on his own. All this [dictatorial] machinery is based on ambition, contempt and tyranny. As long as Milosevic is allowed to continue," Gala concludes glumly, "I don't think there's much hope."
In Denmark, an editorial in the daily Politiken says: "By promising [this week] to lift the sanctions against Serbia if Slobodan Milosevic's regime is toppled, the European Union has changed its policy toward Serbia in a way that may be considered positive at a time when a new serious crisis in the Balkans is looming."
The paper adds: "With its promises of political and economic support to the opposition if it does come to power, the EU has made a first, important step in the right direction. But," it goes on, "if Milosevic does steal the election -- which is likely -- the biggest loser will be the Serbian people. Therefore, it argues, "the EU must consider lifting some of its sanctions regardless of the elections' outcome."
Politiken says this is necessary partly to help the impoverished population of Serbia, where 80,000 people must daily partake of Western humanitarian organizations' soup kitchens, and partly to break the international isolation that has helped Milosevic stay in power. It is time," the paper sums up, "to do away with an embargo that has failed to work."
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
Finally, a commentary in The Los Angeles Times by analyst Anna Husarska says: "Nobody should be fooled: The conditions are not there for these elections to be free and fair. Past experience shows that Milosevic cheats. Nothing will stop him from cheating this time."
Husarska goes on to argue against the idea of Western organizations monitoring the fairness of Sunday's elections. That, she says would not be a good idea for two reasons: "It is unlikely that the international community could muster enough qualified people who would be allowed in to observe, [and] it is strongly advisable for foreign institutions, organizations and groups not to observe -- at least not officially or even overtly -- lest it gives the elections an air of a bona fide democracy."
Rather, she argues "for letting Serbs -- at least officially -- observe their own elections. Not only the ruling clique but also much of the political opposition has been hostile to foreigners, suspicious of international involvement and rather openly anti-American. Any Western involvement," she believes, "especially by the United States, would be denounced by Milosevic as meddling."
"So," Husarska concludes, "it is safer and more productive to discreetly channel aid to Serbia through the independent media, democratic-minded mayors and non-governmental organizations -- and wait for them to report not if but how Milosevic stole the elections. After all," she says, "the point of participating in such a sham is to energize the opposition, and this only the Serbs themselves can do."
(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego in Prague and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)