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Western Press Review: Crisis In Middle East, Change In Yugoslavia

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 9 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today and over the weekend is largely concerned with two subjects. The first is the threat of all-out war in the Middle East, triggered by recent violence in Israel between Palestinians and Israelis. The second major subject is the aftermath of the change in power in Yugoslavia, where the popularly elected Vojislav Kostunica has taken over as president after Slobodan Milosevic finally acknowledged defeat.


An editorial in the French daily Liberation says that seven years after the Oslo accords which set in motion the Middle Eastern peace process, "their convoluted procedures have brought the [area] to the edge of an abyss." The paper writes: "It's not only the failure of the Camp David talks [between Israelis and Palestinians] in July. The enormous accumulated explosive charge goes back much further than that. The breakthrough in Oslo has bogged down entirely, making a lie out of the promise of 'peace' for the Palestinians."

The editorial praises Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for having ended previous "Israeli procrastination" over the peace process under a right-wing government by withdrawing from Lebanon and reopening talks with the Palestinians." But, it suggests, "perhaps it was already too late." In addition, the editorial asks, in allowing right-wing politician Ariel Sharon to visit holy sites in Jerusalem two week ago, did Barak "know that he was in effect exploding the dike that had held back an avalanche of rancor and hate?"


The Washington Post today carries a commentary by Lally Weymouth that blames Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the recent violence and criticizes the U.S. for failing to veto a UN Security Council resolution that put the responsibility on the Israelis. She says: "With Yasser Arafat and his top lieutenants refusing to stop the violence that they actually instigated, it is shameful that the United States abstained when it should have vetoed a UN resolution that wrongly blames Israel for using excessive force against the Palestinians. Arab countries surely will see as weakness Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's argument that the United States abstained in order to preserve its role as an honest broker."

Writing from Jerusalem, Weymouth continues: "While the international community denounces Barak as a warmonger, at home he is under attack for being a wimp. Many of Israel's major roads are closed because Israeli Arabs, in an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians, are sitting on them and shooting at Israeli border police. On the West Bank," she continues, "Israeli soldiers are instructed not to fire unless fired upon. When the Palestinians declared a day of rage Friday, Barak pulled Israeli police from the positions they usually maintain outside the walls of the Temple Mount, a place sacred to both Jews and Muslims."

"The result?" Wyemouth asks. "Palestinians went outside the Temple Mount perimeter and burned a nearby Israeli police station. When Barak ordered troops to evacuate Joseph's tomb in Nablus, Palestinians set it on fire and hacked at it with pickaxes." She adds: "Barak told Israelis the truth when he addressed them on the crisis. He explained that he has walked the last mile in search of peace. If the violence continues, Israel will have to retaliate, he warned. Barak believed his mission as prime minister was to make peace with Syria and the Palestinians. But his agenda has fallen apart over the past few months."


In Norway, the daily Aftenposten still hopes that the peace process may be revived. But, it notes, "pessimists are predicting a new spiral of violence. And regrettably, in the Middle East, it is usually the pessimists who are the realists."

The paper's editorial goes on: "[U.S. President Bill] Clinton, Premier Barak, and President Arafat have pinned all their political prestige on the continued peace process. But," it adds, "it is just this combination of an outgoing president, a prime minister who commands no parliamentary majority and a leader whose position is -- to put it mildly -- disputable that shows precisely how precarious the situation in the Middle East is."


Two Spanish newspapers also comment on the Middle East today. In El Pais, Andres Ortega writes: "What has happened is much more than an Intifada. The fact that Israeli Arabs joined the protest [shows] Muslim frustration has now reached its deepest point." He continues: "Again, we face a conflict that could possibly expand throughout the entire region, [The] winds of hate are blowing as far as South Lebanon and could stir a fire in the refugees camps in Jordan. We are facing times of terrible uncertainty."


In El Mundo, analyst Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio writes in a commentary: "The wave of violence has come at a bad moment for the Barak government which -- thanks to frantic diplomatic activity -- had won the support of the international community in preventing a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence." But, he adds, "when Barak adopted a policy of the iron fist similar to that followed by his mentor Yitzhak Rabin during the first (Intifada repression, Barak lost his advantage in only five days. "

The commentary goes on: "The new crisis [leaves] Barak with only two options: To begin talks [with Arafat] as soon as possible and try to negotiate a last-minute peace treaty with the Palestinians, or to call for early elections to find out if Israeli society supports his policies."


Turning to Yugoslavia, the Danish daily Politiken says that "Europe is now bidding welcome to a Serbia that changed itself beyond recognition during a single weekend." Its editorial continues: "Many compare the revolution in Serbia last week with the events in neighboring Romania at the end of 1989, when the nationalist-socialist couple Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were toppled and subsequently executed. But," it argues, "[Yugoslavia's new President] Vojislav Kostunica differs radically from those who overthrew the Ceausescus."

The paper says that Kostunica "used truth, not violence, as his main weapon. This," it says, "gives democracy in Yugoslavia much better chances than in Romania, where even today there is the danger of a Communist comeback. In addition, Serbia now is in a position to use all the experience of the reformists in eastern Europe in the course of the past 11 years."

Still, the editorial acknowledges, "the return of Serbia to the international community will not be easy. Neither Kostunica nor the proud Serbian people have forgotten the humiliation and destruction inflicted upon them by the NATO bombings last year." But it adds: "Kostunica's pronounced anti-Americanism is not necessarily fatal because it is Europe, not the United States, to which Serbia will be returning to now, and it is the European Union, not Washington, with which Belgrade will be talking." It concludes: "The EU had difficulties making the Serbs realize this while they were ruled by Milosevic. But with Kostunica the situation promises to be different."


In the Los Angeles Times, analyst Walter Russell Mead focuses on Slobodan Milosevic, whom he describes as "the most disastrous leader in the long history of the Serbian people." What finally brought Milosevic down, Mead says, "wasn't his enemies abroad. It was the courage and the outraged patriotism of the Serbs."

The commentary continues: "The Serbia [Milosevic] leaves to his successors is a shrunken, impoverished shadow of the Greater Serbia he promised. Lost are the lands of the Krajina, Serb settlements in Croatia, settled centuries ago by Serbs determined to fight on against Ottoman penetration of the Balkans. More than 100,000 Serbs were driven out -- ethnically cleansed -- while the United States and the rest of world turned a blind eye. Gone, too," he adds, "in reality, if not in name, is Kosovo, fabled homeland of the Serbian national spirit. Milosevic's career began when he swore to the Serbs to keep Kosovo an integral part of the Serbian state. As it ends, Kosovo's Serbian inhabitants are embittered refugees, [with] Kosovar Albanians [in] control."

Mead says further: "Tens of thousands of Serbs have died in Milosevic's lost wars. Eleven years of economic growth has been lost. Serbia was once one of the richest, most developed of Balkan lands. Now its citizens face years, even decades, of poverty as they struggle to recover. More than that," he adds, "Serbia has lost what was once an enviable place in the world. Not long ago, Serbs were one of Europe's favorite peoples. Celebrated for their courageous resistance to the Ottomans, admired for their culture of generosity and hospitality, Serbs were the Balkan citizens whom Westerners, especially the British, French and Americans, most admired.

He concludes: "But Serbs, like all people, have their share of hatreds, follies, fantasies and psychoses. It was Serbia's misfortune, and for decades to come it will be Serbia's sorrow, that Milosevic emerged from the decay of Yugoslav communism to harness Serb bitterness to a perverted ambition."


Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung runs a commentary by Daniel Broessler focusing on post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. He writes: "Vojislav Kostunica wants to save the federation with Montenegro and ensure that Kosovo remains at least formally a part of Serbia. [He] knows that he has the support of the international community on both of these thorny issues, but he also knows that the country's realities are not necessarily on his side. The change in power in Belgrade is not likely to have an effect on the Kosovo Albanians' longing for independence, setting them on a certain collision course with Kostunica."

Broessler quotes Hans Koschnick, former EU administrator of Mostar in Bosnia, as saying: "The West should know one thing: Kostunica is clearly a Serb nationalist. He grew up with Serb ideology and mythology." The commentator adds: "For a lack of other plausible solutions, Kosovo is supposed to remain in that state of limbo enshrined in UN Resolution 1244 -- an international protectorate that is still formally a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

"But in actual fact," Broessler goes on, "not even a democratic Yugoslavia can find room for Kosovo anymore. As early as the beginning of this year the UN administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, said there would be no going back and no re-integration of Kosovo into the Yugoslav republic. In addition," the commentator argues, "it is not at all clear that Montenegrins see their future as part of a democratic Yugoslavia. [He cites] Srdan Darmanovic, director of Montenegro's Center for Democracy and Human Rights in the capital Podgorica, as saying his small country's 650,000 people are closer than ever to independence in the wake of the radical change in Belgrade."


The Washington Post's foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland is more optimistic. He writes: "The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic by the Serbian nation comes as an uplifting October Surprise. Its effects ripple out from the Balkans to touch Russia, China, the American presidential race and the very practice of global power politics. Once again a Milosevic defeat changes the world for the better."

Hoagland goes on: "The biggest shock will be felt by China's ruling gerontocracy. Beijing was the last major capital to support Mr. Milosevic enthusiastically with its money and diplomacy. The ouster of a Communist boss by an enraged people cheated out of political freedom can only increase nervousness and the temptation for repression in China. But," he argues further, "the biggest immediate damage is done to Vladimir Putin. The Russian president's stumbling efforts to save the Serbian dictator in extremis have deepened official Washington's already strong doubts about Mr. Putin's understanding of and commitment to democracy.

Hoagland goes on: "Given a chance to lead in an area of Russian influence, Mr. Putin followed slowly, grudgingly and incompetently. The White House never will say it has given up on Mr. Putin's government as a serious partner, but it effectively has."

He adds: "Despite direct prodding from President Bill Clinton and European governments, Mr. Putin refused to abandon Mr. Milosevic as people power raced toward critical mass in Belgrade. Incredibly, [Russian foreign minister Igor] Ivanov also tried to secure the president-elect's agreement that Mr. Milosevic would continue to play a political role in Yugoslavia." Hoagland concludes: "Russia's intent seems clear: As long as Mr. Milosevic is around, the West will not be able to have a close relationship with Belgrade. Russia's residual role in the Balkans would be built on protecting an indicted war criminal [and] his cronies."

(This concludes today's press review in one take. RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to our report.)