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Western Press Review: Commentaries Dissect Possibilities In Yugoslavia

  • Don Hill

Prague, 4 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Widespread commentary from the West today dissects Slobodan Milosevic's squirming to evade what commentators accept as the verdict of his Yugoslavia's voters.


Denmark's Information daily speaks for many when it says, "The outcome of the current predicament is impossible to foresee." In an editorial, the paper recounts various friendly offers from Russia, Greece, and France to mediate between the Yugoslav president and his opponents.

The editorial then says this: "All such endeavors are meant to increase the pressure on Milosevic. If he accepts having the ballots recounted, he knows what the answer will be. He will have to go. If he refuses, his prestige will be seriously damaged, especially in the eyes of Serbia's ruling elite. Everyone in the establishment knows that not all rats have to go down with the sinking ship."


A recent headline on an editorial in The Washington Post referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the "Potemkin President," that is, a president who erects an irresistibly attractive facade to hide the ugly reality behind it. Several commentators today try to determine whether recent Putin signals of siding with the West on Yugoslavia constitutes a kind of Potemkin village or a real change in Russia's Balkans policy.


Writing from Moscow in Berlin's Die Welt, German commentator Jens Hartmann says of Putin, "Suddenly he's become a most wanted man in a very positive way." Hartmann says that Western leaders are courting Putin, seeking an answer to whether he will continue to prop up Milosevic. The writer says, "If Putin's latest remarks are being interpreted correctly, the answer is no."

Hartmann writes: "The Russians do not want to come away empty-handed from the Balkans. If Putin can persuade Milosevic to step down, thus avoiding a fresh war in the Balkans, he will have added to his political bankroll in both Washington and in Belgrade."


A New York Times editorial seeks not so much to foretell Russia's role as to direct it. The editorial says: "Slobodan Milosevic is not relinquishing power easily. Ten days after voters decisively elected Vojislav Kostunica as Yugoslavia's new president, Milosevic continues to bluster and threaten, proceeding with plans to hold a meaningless runoff vote this Sunday. Kostunica and his allies are right to disparage the runoff and insist on immediate recognition of his victory. Foreign governments, especially Russia's, must persuade Milosevic to yield power without further delay."

The newspaper adds: "Putin has signaled to foreign leaders that he has no fondness for Milosevic. But publicly he has remained neutral, accepting the idea of a runoff and personally offering to mediate talks between the two contenders."

The editorial concludes: "Such neutrality will prolong the crisis, at Yugoslavia's expense. Milosevic has brought his country international shame, military humiliation and painful economic isolation. The voters have repudiated him. Russia should now join with other countries in denouncing the runoff and recognizing Kostunica's clear victory."


The New York Times also publishes today a commentary by Serbian historian Aleksa Djilas, now a public policy scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. Djilas defies most popular wisdom and argues that the opposition ought to go along with Milosevic's scheduled runoff election.

He writes: "Before Yugoslavia's elections on September 24, most Western leaders expected that [Milosevic] and his coalition would win -- through intimidation of opponents and voters, repression of independent media and simple theft of votes. They were wrong."

Djilas continues: "With the same self-confidence they had before the elections, Western leaders now say that Mr. Milosevic is wrong and that Mr. Kostunica is the outright winner. They are correct."

Now, Djilas says, the opposition should enter the unneeded runoff and score more votes than even Milosevic can steal. The writer concludes: "If the opposition really does boycott the elections, Mr. Milosevic will proclaim himself the winner. His legitimacy would be shakier then ever before, and he would not be able to consolidate his power again. But the democratic transition also would be postponed, and Serbia, which has lost more than a decade to war, would lose even more time."


The Washington Post carries a news analysis by staff reporter R. Jeffrey Smith, writing from Kosovo's capital Pristina. Smith recounts the ways in which Milosevic has maneuvered in the past. The writer then says, "The question now in Belgrade is whether history will repeat itself, leaving Milosevic in place as the only communist leader in Europe to hold power continuously since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or is this moment fundamentally different, with the opposition united in the inflexible goal of forcing his resignation?"


Noel Malcolm writes in Britain's Daily Telegraph: "The fall of a tyrant is a very special event. It is one of those moments at which the destiny of a nation seems shaped like an hour-glass. Everything is funneled into a single point, a key decision, a fatal hesitation. Think of Ceausescu on the balcony in Bucharest, his irritated frown turning into a mask of fear as he realized the crowd had turned against him." The columnist says: "The downfall of Milosevic will come eventually, but it will be the product, not of some magic moment of inevitability, but of a mass of causes, some of them murky and half-hidden, over which historians will be arguing for years to come."


Making a similar point in Liberation today, French commentator Pierre Marcelle paints the Yugoslav portrait with prose-poetry in tones of foul-weather gray. Marcelle writes:

"In the midst of this disquieting Serbian strangeness, in this in-between, where we hold our breath and become observers in the gentle rain, we stare attentively at the umbrellas in the damp images. Here are the Milosevic police arresting nine people last Monday in Belgrade for 'arrogant and inconsiderate behavior.' Here is more than the gray and gloomy face of the dictator whose reactions make us think of a infuriated father Ubu or of [Romania's] Ceausescu on trembling last legs."

The commentator then writes: "Breaking the lines of the scene, hiding the deepness of the human streams flowing with the rain, the umbrellas upset us. We would like to shout, 'Down in front!' as we do at the cinema when somebody blocks our view of the screen.

"The problem," he continues, "is that since Sunday, it has been raining in Belgrade and we are bound to take this rain into account. In such crucial moments, the weather forecast becomes an important element that should not be ignored."

The writer asks, "Is the rain neutral?" and answers, "Not completely." He says, "When rain is mixed with fear, it can be terrible."

Liberation's commentator concludes: "We study the weather forecast maps. What is to come from the sky does not look good. What if rain were the only obstacle? What if Milosevic had only the weather to protect him? A fantasy becomes an obstacle to clear observation. And we suddenly find ourselves dreaming about a sunbeam above Serbia."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego contributed to this report.)