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2000 In Review: Yugoslavia, Russia Lead List Of Top Stories

  • Don Hill

As globalization shrinks the world and once-Communist nations turn from isolation to inclusiveness, the top news stories for Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia increasingly cover events that reach beyond old boundary lines. Even so, RFE/RL editor Don Hill reports that events in Yugoslavia and Russia dominated the news in the year 2000.

Prague, 21 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The sudden fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia head the RFE/RL list of the top stories of the Year 2000 for Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia.

After that, developments around the world -- the U.S. presidential election, renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians, efforts to reform and expand the EU, and economic globalization -- lead the list of news events for the regions' peoples. That reflects the increasing interdependence of the interests beyond national borders.

Here's our editors' list:

Top story: Yugoslavia Breaks The Bonds Of Autocracy.

"You are protecting [Milosevic]! Shame on you! Let's go, brothers -- come here, come [police] commander, come commander! Nobody will hurt you."

Serbian protesters yelled at police outside the parliament building in October on the streets of Belgrade as they brought down an autocrat and regained their country.

Thirteen years earlier, Communist Yugoslav President Ivan Stambolic had sent to Kosovo his then little-known protege Slobodan Milosevic to mediate growing tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the province.

The story begins here: Instead of mediating, Milosevic delivers a fiery, nationalist speech that ignites years of war between nations of the former Yugoslavia. He consolidates his power and develops a pattern of turning attention away from domestic failures by embroiling his countrymen in wars.

At last, shocking the world with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, he overreaches. NATO mounts a bombing campaign and, in June, Milosevic pulls Serbian forces out of Kosovo and surrenders the province to international supervision.

In July, his party alters the election law, enabling Milosevic to seek another term as president.

But by September, Milosevic has become so unpopular that the long-fragmented opposition wins the election. At first, Milosevic tries to deny the victory, but the people take to the streets in the tens of thousands. On October 6, Milosevic concedes defeat, and the next day, reformist Vojislav Kostunica assumes office.

The story is not over. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia has re-elected him to its chairmanship despite his status as an indicted war criminal wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The new authorities have said Milosevic will not be sent to The Hague for trial.

News Story Number Two: Vladimir Putin's Russia.

You could easily identify a Russia specialist in the summer of 1999. That would be anyone who had heard of Vladimir Putin before president Boris Yeltsin named him prime minister. By the next New Year's Day, there were few people anywhere who didn't know the name of the man that Yeltsin, resigning his office on the last day of 1999, had named as acting president and chosen heir.

Putin moved swiftly to consolidate his position. First, he pardoned Yeltsin and his family of any crimes they may have committed during Yeltsin's presidential tenure. Putin then traveled to Chechnya and promised to continue Russia's military campaign against the rebellious republic.

In elections in March, Putin won the presidency on his own. As president, Putin has warmed many Western leaders with promises of social, economic and political reform. He has announced personal respect for press freedom. He has called for the development of democratic institutions. He has denounced corruption and the power of Russia's industrial oligarchs.

But at the same time, Putin has approved -- or at least has not intervened to prevent -- attacks on press institutions. RFE/RL Russian correspondent Andrei Babitsky was improperly detained by Russian forces for his reports on the Chechen war. Authorities subsequently prosecuted Babitsky on a charge of using false documents. Putin at first denied any knowledge of Babitsky. Officials released the reporter only after intense international protests.

In May, officials raided the premises of Media-Most, an independent media conglomerate whose outlets often criticized the government. They arrested and subsequently released Media-Most Chairman Vladimir Gusinsky. The prosecution continues, however, and Gusinsky was arrested in December outside the country on an international arrest warrant.

Last June, Igor Malashenko, first deputy chairman of the board of Media-Most, told a press conference in Berlin that the prosecution was a direct attack on the press.

"His (Gusinsky's) arrest in Moscow is, on the one hand, political revenge for the work of our mass media and, on the other hand, an act to terrify journalists. As concerns (that is, As for claims that) the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky is not politically motivated, I am convinced that this is just official nonsense."

World financial institutions continue to withhold loans from Russia, awaiting evidence of the economic reforms Putin has announced.

Story Number Three: The U.S. Election That Stalled

The United States, which holds itself up as a model of democratic process, captured the amused attention of the world with a series of stumbles beginning only hours after the November 7 presidential election. First, U.S. television networks -- famous for unerring predictions of national election outcomes based on small samplings -- announced that Republican George W. Bush had won.

Bush's Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, quickly and graciously offered a concession. But shortly thereafter, and somewhat less graciously, he retracted it when the networks reported that results in the key southern state of Florida were too close to call.

A series of protracted legal maneuvers followed in local courts, the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. The election finally ended five weeks later after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there would be no more vote recounts. Bush was declared the winner, but only by the flimsiest of margins: 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast in Florida. He also failed to win the national popular vote, becoming just the fourth president in U.S. history to win the election while losing the popular vote.

Story Number Four: Mideast Hope For Peace Ablaze

Rarely does one event trigger a flare-up of long-smoldering violence as clearly as did the visit in September of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site holy both to Islam and the Jews. Many Palestinians detest Sharon, the former head of the right Likud party. His visit set off a series of Palestinian demonstrations, followed by a fierce Israeli response -- a cycle of violence that had not culminated by year's end. The violence so far has killed about 300 people, mostly Palestinians, many of them youngsters and -- except for stones -- unarmed.

One victim was the government of Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, another the drive for a negotiated peace between the Jews and Palestinians. Barak resigned earlier this month, thereby triggering new Israeli elections within 60 days. It wasn't yet clear whether Barak's chief opponent for prime minister will be Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Likud premier. If either of the right's leaders wins, it likely will bode ill for Arab-Israeli peace.

Story Number Five: EU Expansion

It was not clear, either, at year's end if the pace of expansion of the 15-nation European Union had accelerated. But it was evident that the drive had intensified. The 10 candidates from Eastern Europe, as well as Cyprus and Malta, advanced in harmonizing their laws with EU norms and many are now looking to enter the Union sometime in 2003 or 2004. EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen spoke in Brussels in September of his satisfaction:

"We have agreed that the process of enlargement is well on track, that we [have] made good progress in our cooperation. I reaffirmed that enlargement is and remains the strategic top priority of the present [European] commission."

The drive toward expansion was bolstered by this month's (Dec 7-11) Nice summit. The protracted meeting produced some agreement among EU members on a series of controversial internal reforms that need to be worked out before the entry of any new members.

Story Number Six: Globalization And Its Foes

It has been about 60 years since U.S. presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie wrote the book "One World or None." Today's name for "One World" is globalization, and it stands for economic integration, rather than political.

But the idea -- though more obviously inevitable -- remains as controversial as it was in the 1940s. Mainstream economists and other proponents say that institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have created international economic stability and raised world average incomes and living standards.

Critics say the benefits have not reached the truly poor people of the world and that the rich are gaining at the cost of the poor being increasingly impoverished. They also say that industry is gobbling up resources and destroying the environment. Some protesting critics disrupted a joint meeting of the World Bank and the IMF in Prague in September. Violence in the streets was accompanied by cries of:

"Smash, smash, smash the IMF! Smash, smash, smash the IMF!..."

And:

"Ho! Hee! Internationale solidarite! Ho! Hee! Internationale solidarite ..."

Also contributing to the globalization movement at the millennium were the communication revolution led by the explosive growth of the internet, and world conferences on so-called "POPs" -- that is, long-lasting or "persistent organic pollutants" -- and global warming.

At year's end, conferees appeared near a global agreement on banning POPs. But worldwide talks on reducing pollutants blamed for global warming have stalled. A global warming conference in The Hague in November collapsed after European and U.S. negotiators failed to agree on ways to gauge output cuts. The United States, the world's single largest polluter, insisted it be allowed to offset pollution reduction requirements with existing forests and farmlands. Here's Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, the meeting's organizer, expressing his discouragement:

"I am frustrated with the pace of the talks of the last three years. The pace during the last week [of the meeting] was a bit quicker. But if we would continue to negotiate at this pace, we would easily reach the year 2008 with the negotiations."

Story Number Seven: Blitzkrieg Of Science And Technology

Humankind's advances in knowledge and control of natural forces came thick and fast in the millennium's first year. Among the leading developments were the birth of space colonization with the manning of the international space station and the conclusion of a decade-long graphing of the human genome, the road map of evolution.

Announcing the genome development in Washington in June, Dr. Francis Collins, was triumphant:

"Science is a voyage of exploration into the unknown. We are here today to celebrate a milestone along a truly unprecedented voyage; this one, into ourselves. Alexander Pope wrote, 'Know then thyself. Presume not God to scan. The proper study of Mankind is Man.' What more powerful form of study of mankind could there be than to read our own instruction book?"

Story Number Eight: Central Asia's Totalitarian Culture

The former Soviet republics in Central Asia once held out the reasonable prospect of joining the democratic family of nations. But that prospect dimmed this year as the countries completed a cycle of elections that were anything but democratic.

This most recent series of votes started last year when Kazakhstan held an early presidential election (originally scheduled for this month). The process that resulted in the re-election of the incumbent, in the OSCE's phrase, fell "far short" of democratic standards. International watchdogs heightened their scrutiny of Central Asian elections that followed. In Tajikistan 10 months later, the incumbents claimed to have won 97 percent of the vote. Curiously, the incumbent's only opponent denied that he was a candidate at all.

In Uzbekistan's presidential elections in January of this year, the only person opposing Uzbek leader Islam Karimov reportedly even cast his own ballot for Karimov. Tajikistan's parliamentary elections in February, as expected, gave the president's party a comfortable majority of seats in parliament. In Kyrgyzstan -- once regarded as a model -- courts and election officials disqualified most viable opposition leaders in that country's parliamentary vote. The OSCE denounced the first-round February election as undemocratic and said a March run-off was worse. Kyrgyzstan's presidential elections in October saw incumbent president Askar Akayev claim an easy win.

Central Asia leaders dispute critics, saying the region is moving toward democracy. They say critics fail to understand their historic traditions and culture.

Story Number Nine: Justice, Too, Goes Global

The face of international law changed in the year 2000 in at least two basic ways.

Spain's effort in 1998 to extradite former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, from Britain -- though finally foiled in March 2000 -- established that even heads of state are not immune from charges of crimes against humanity. After more than 500 days of detention, Britain finally permitted Pinochet to return home to Chile. At year's end, however, Chile itself was considering bringing the old dictator to trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

Turkey's abduction and trial of Turkish Kurd rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, which ended in a death sentence, nonetheless established that nations are subject to international scrutiny even in dealing with internal justice. In January Turkey -- a candidate for EU membership -- agreed to suspend Ocalan's execution to allow the European Court of Human Rights to hear Ocalan's appeal. The Strasbourg court is now weighing its verdict.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia also broke new ground in a series of decisions and trials. Three of its actions were especially noteworthy: In March, there was a trial in March of three Bosnian Serbs for rape and abduction, the first time sex crimes were specifically cited as war crimes. Then came the sentencing of General Tihomir Blaskic -- the highest-ranking Balkan war criminal to date -- to 45 years for crimes as supreme Croat commander in Bosnia. And in April, NATO found and arrested indicted war criminal Momcilo Krajisnik, a former ally of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Story Number Ten: Oil's Troubled Waters

In the year 2000, some people still burned camel's dung for energy while others used electricity generated by nuclear power. But one power source used throughout the world was oil. Oil -- its discovery, production, transport, use and cost -- dramatizes global interdependence.

That interdependence was made obvious this summer as world oil prices climbed to 10-year highs, setting off dramatic protests by long-haul truckers across Europe. In the United States, the Administration of President Bill Clinton ordered the country's strategic oil reserves to be tapped. OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, raised oil production quotas.

Although prices had eased by the end of the year, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Horst Koehler, summed up the danger to the world economy of sustained higher energy prices.

"Oil prices, ladies and gentlemen, certainly cast a new shadow on the economic outlook. It serves as a good reminder that complacency is a powerful enemy of good policies. The balance of risks for the world economy has clearly become a bit less favorable now."

In the Caspian Sea area, U.S. interests lobbied for pipeline routes to Western markets that would bypass Russia. By year's end, Kazakhstan, which discovered important new petroleum reserves during the year, was playing the Iran card, stepping up diplomatic interaction with Iran on a proposed Iranian pipeline route.

(RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs and Bruce Pannier contributed to this report. Charles Recknagel and the South Slav Broadcast also assisted.)

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