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Western Press Review: Building Peace, Destroying Monuments

  • Daisy Sindelar

Prague, 9 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in today's Western press covers a variety of subjects, from NATO's responsibilities in the Balkans to Moldova's elections to the destruction of historical artifacts in the name of progress, ideology, or war.


A commentary by Berthold Kohler in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" addresses the changing nature of the Balkan crisis. He writes: "The North Atlantic Treaty Organization cannot be accused of sticking to rigid conceptions of friend and foe."

The Yugoslav army, NATO's adversary just two years ago, has now become an ally. Serbian soldiers and NATO peacekeepers will work together in the previously demilitarized zone along the border between Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia to curb the activities of ethnic Albanian militants.

Kohler writes: "In the Balkans, the West's military might is not much greater than its political clout," and he adds: "[Its] enthusiasm for last autumn's Serbian 'revolution' made it clear how much it would like to be able to concede to Belgrade, with a clean conscience, the role of a regional supreme leader."

NATO, Kohler says, has essentially failed in its stabilizing role in the Balkans, where no part of the former Yugoslavia -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Sandzak, or Vojvodina -- has seen the true return of peace and calm.

He goes on to say that closer cooperation between NATO and Belgrade may succeed at least in showing Kosovo Albanians that the West is no longer necessarily on their side. He adds, however, that "excessive attempts" at disciplining Kosovar Albanians would be "counterproductive." Serbia, Kohler writes, has "irretrievably lost Kosovo, and to say anything else is nonsense."

He adds: "Moreover, even as the West looks to Belgrade for assistance, it must take care not to confuse wishful thinking with reality. In the Serbian capital, people also dream of order in the Balkans, but a very special kind of order -- a Serbian order."


An editorial in Britain's weekly "Economist" looks at what it calls Israel's new "odd couple" -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his foreign minister, Simon Peres. It was the 77-year-old Peres, the editorial says, who was crucial to forming Israel's new coalition government: "His eloquence [persuaded] most Labor members to support a national-unity government led by the veteran hawk (Sharon) who provoked the current Palestinian uprising -- and which includes at least two members whose views break the far-right barrier of acceptability" -- Rehavam Ze'evi, who advocates moving Palestinians out of the occupied territories, and Avigdor Lieberman, who has publicly proposed bombing Egypt.

The editorial says all eyes are on the 73-year-old Sharon, whose response to the Palestinian uprising will most likely stop short of the "calculated brutality" of his past but will be, at the least, "attention-grabbing." Sharon, it says, "likes to finish things off once and for all. [He] is committed to pursue and punish Palestinian militancy."

Still, the "Economist" says: "Mr. Sharon should lose no time in reconsidering the effectiveness, and the collateral damage, of the emergency arrangements that [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell last week denounced as Israel's 'siege' of the territories." The editorial recommends, among other concessions, the immediate return of $50 million in Palestinian tax revenues.

The editorial continues: "The inevitable step, sooner or later, has to be negotiation of some kind. [If] the new government concentrates exclusively on ending the violence through repression, the uprising will take longer to end, and will cost much blood." It adds: "The hope must be that Mr. Peres, the junior of the two old men in the coalition, is not there as a fig-leaf to mask Mr. Sharon's hard-line instincts, but as a friendly adviser and one to be listened to."


Britain's "Guardian" carries a commentary that argues, in the wake of the international outcry over the fate of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, that "the world's old buildings get blown up all the time." Martin Woollacott says that from Beirut's central Ottoman market to Beijing's abundance of ancient monuments, many parts of the world have witnessed the willful destruction of cultural heritage -- whether for economic, ideological, or strategic purposes.

Woollacott writes that the demolition of the Beirut market -- cleared to make way for redevelopment -- "severed personal histories [and] collective history as well." The market, he says, lost its existence "to a commercially oriented philosophy which could find no room for a monument of an earlier form of commerce."

According to the commentator, what he calls the "cultural suicide" of Beijing's iconoclast communists -- who oversaw the destruction of all but 78 of their some 8,000 ancient monuments and sites -- had a political purpose: "[It was a city] which [had] expressed the power of the emperor and the importance of the spiritual life," he writes, and "both had become anathema."

Similarly, Woollacot says, "the destruction of monuments by the warring sides in former Yugoslavia was sometimes incidental to combat but more often deliberate. Sacred and beautiful places, such as Dubrovnik or the Mostar bridge and old town, were targeted with the intention, in some cases, of removing them so completely as to erase the evidence that people of another religion or ethnicity had once lived in a particular place."

Woollacott says such "coherent intent" is probably not to be found in the Taliban's destruction of the standing Buddha statues in Bamiyan. He writes: "Certainly there is no threat to Islam from a religion which has not existed in that part of the world for many years. The vicious rationality seen in the Balkans is not evident. Instead the regime may be expressing more its lack of interest in what other societies care about than anything else."

Contemplating the question of whether it is proper to mourn the loss of a building as much as the loss of human life, Woollacott quotes an (unnamed) Croatian author as saying: "We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument is something else. The Mostar bridge was built to outlive us. It was an attempt to grasp eternity."


A commentary in the "Washington Post" says American litigiousness "infects and distorts" U.S. foreign policy. Charles Krauthammer writes: "Americans like trials. It's the civil, fair, just way to settle disputes. But we like them too much."

He goes on: "Thus when the [U.S. destroyer] USS Cole was attacked by terrorists [in a Yemen harbor last October, killing 17 U.S. servicemen], we made the usual post-terrorism pledge: [we] will not rest until we track down the perpetrators and bring them to justice." But, Krauthammer argues, "what is the point of bringing to trial the lowest creatures on the terrorist food chain, the ones naive and expendable enough to be involved in pulling the trigger, when we know that they are being sent by masters invariably out of the reach of law enforcement?"

He continues: "The paradigm is wrong. When Americans are deliberately victimized by terror abroad, this is not a law-enforcement matter. This is war."

Still, Krauthammer says, the pursuit of international justice via the courtroom continues apace. And the next defendant looks likely to be deposed Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic. One hundred million dollars in U.S. aid is contingent on Yugoslavia's cooperating by 31 March with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The Yugoslavian leadership has duly promised Milosevic's arrest by the end of the month.

Krauthammer writes: "The possibility of a show trial is great. Milosevic is certainly a thug, but investigators are finding that proving his crimes is not easy. He left very little of a paper trail. In fact, he'll probably be indicted not for murder or war crimes but for corruption: The only hard evidence against him right now involves a crooked land deal. That is the Yugoslav equivalent of nailing Al Capone for tax evasion."

He adds: "Justice is easy to demand at a [distance] of 5,000 miles. It can come at a very high price in a country such as Yugoslavia, however. Many countries emerging from tyranny -- Chile, South Africa, El Salvador -- have wisely [chosen] justice in the name of social peace."


The "International Herald Tribune" carries a commentary by John Boit that says the Council of Europe's decision in January to extend membership to Azerbaijan gives the country free license to "cheat."

Boit writes: "Expanding membership to include newly emerging democracies ultimately makes good sense -- if the country is willing to accept the necessary changes as a new member. [But when] it comes to the basic media freedom of creating a transparent mechanism for television broadcast licenses, the government of Azerbaijan appears unwilling to relinquish its grip on the information business."

He says that what he calls the Azerbaijani government's "systematic" campaign against independent television in recent weeks temporarily cut the country's regional independent broadcasting by half. Independent newspapers, likewise, are suffering from artificially raised printing costs, while "the pro-government press has flourished, adding pages and increasing the number of publishing days."

Boit writes: "Self-censorship is rampant. Rosy stories of presidential meetings, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and Azerbaijan's bright future as an oil and gas producer often lead the evening news."

He adds: "It takes guts to report on corruption, other scandals and government lethargy -- something that the closed stations regularly did. [Azerbajani] authorities must be made to understand that healthy and objective media are crucial. Proper licensing mechanisms would bring a more certain business atmosphere. [To] what extent will the Council of Europe push for these changes?" Boit asks. "And how much pressure will foreign diplomatic missions apply?"


A commentary in today's "Wall Street Journal Europe" looks at Moldova's February election of a Communist parliamentary majority. Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, writes: "Moldova has become the first post-Soviet country to have brought the Communist Party back to power."

The consequences, he writes, can be far-reaching. The Communists will likely favor the retention of Russian troops in the country's Transdniestr region -- a military presence that could affect neighboring Ukraine and Romania. Socor writes: "The former is a crucial, if now teetering 'partner in peace.' The latter is an aspirant to NATO membership. Moldova is situated on a crossroads where multiple geopolitical interests have always tended to intersect."

The Russian reaction to the election, naturally, is a favorable one, he writes. "Moscow's politicians, even in the liberal Yabloko Party, have welcomed the Red landslide in Moldova for strategic reasons. [Russia's] Communists view it as a vindication of leftist opposition to market reforms and a harbinger of leftist resurgence in other post-Soviet countries." However, he writes, the resurgence of communism in this instance is particular to Moldova, where extreme poverty, an undereducated public, and a Russian-speaking population that comprises 30 percent of the electorate all contributed to the Communists' win.

Socor also says that the Kremlin has also made Moldova the target of a political experiment in which the country's communists and its non-communist, lame duck state leadership -- represented by President Petru Lucinschi and Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis -- would create a "broad internal political basis for Moldova's return into Russia's political, military and economic orbit." Lucinschi and Braghis, he writes, could "promote the minimally necessary economic reforms that might elicit Western acceptance and financing of a Communist-dominated government."

Socor concludes: "Russian policy makers are not interested in socialist experiments in Moldova. What they need is a broadly based political block that would spell stability, an economic and cultural re-orientation toward Russia, and a level of relations with the West that would avoid or minimize the need for Russia to become an economic donor to Moldova."