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Western Press Review: UN's Own Rights Abuses, Poland's Economy, Russian Media

  • Khatya Chhor
  • Dora Slaba

Prague, 30 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Topics addressed today in Western press commentary include human rights abuses committed by UN peacekeepers, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the "Tobin tax," Poland's economy, and the Russian media.


In a contribution to "The Jerusalem Post," Manfred Gerstenfeld examines several cases of human rights abuses committed by UN peacekeepers during missions abroad. A story broke last week regarding Italian, Danish, and Slovakian UN soldiers engaging in weekends of "prostitution, pedophilia, and orgies" while on assignment in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Other charges of rights abuses, assaults, and racially motivated misconduct have been leveled at Canadian UN contingents in Somalia and Dutch soldiers in Bosnia, among others.

Gerstenfeld says that in some cases, military intelligence knew of the abuses but withheld the information from relevant legal authorities. Gerstenfeld writes: "The UN conference against racism in Durban is an appropriate occasion to take a closer look at a few of the human rights offenses and other abuses committed under the UN aegis." Some of the individual cases of rights abuses, he adds, "pale in comparison with several decisions of the UN's top institutions."

He writes: "The UN is the main international forum today where criminal dictatorships are given a respectable opportunity to express moral judgments. Had the organization not been a paradigm of hypocrisy, it would have made its own failures in the field of human rights and racism the main theme of the Durban conference."


A "Financial Times" editorial considers French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's support for levying a surcharge on the movement of capital across borders. This surcharge, called the "Tobin tax" after the Nobel-laureate U.S economist James Tobin, was originally intended as a means of discouraging excessive short-term movements of capital.

The paper says that endorsing this tax policy "may win Mr. Jospin more votes in next year's presidential election. [But] it will unsettle business leaders, his own finance minister and other governments in the euro-zone. [Mr. Jospin] must know that there is no chance that other European Union governments will support the Tobin tax. The Germans signaled so this week. The British are equally opposed. In the circumstances, the prime minister's initiative looks like an exercise in [political] cynicism."

The paper concludes: "Four years ago, Mr. Jospin headed into a general election as an underdog. He used the 35-hour working week as a means of neutralizing the radical left, knowing that once in government he would have to apply fiscal discipline and a measure of privatization. It was [bad] economics but brilliant politics. Mr. Jospin may think he can use the Tobin tax in the same way. But he is playing a dangerous game."


Three German papers focus their commentary on the political and economic situation in Poland. The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" begins in an editorial describing the Polish government as "lost."

It looks at the career of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, who has headed the government for four years, a lonely record in the young Polish democracy, where his predecessors achieved an average of 10 months in office. For a long time, the paper notes, he enjoyed a fine reputation in spite of his introduction of a tough reform program.

But now, the paper continues, this reputation has been clouded by revelations that billions have gone missing from state coffers. The paper writes: "The scandal of a gigantic hole in the budget is only an overture to the last act of a grotesque play to maintain power staged by the conservative and nationalist groupings, which still cite the trade union Solidarnost movement as a point of reference. These politicians have had almost four years to exhibit their ability to rule in Poland, but instead they have given a performance of self-destruction -- political suicide."

The editorial concludes that the ones to laugh last will be the politicians who have their roots among the communist nomenklatura. There are genuine indications that they will win the forthcoming parliamentary elections hands down and "the right wing will deservedly have to adjust to an opposition status."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says that since civic candidate Marian Krzaklewski's ignominious defeat in last year's presidential election, the Polish government has suffered a speedy downturn. First, it lost the majority in parliament and subsequently the cabinet began to fall to pieces. In spite of Buzek's reform efforts, the paper says, the result has brought economic disaster. Even the socialists become dizzy when looking at the future prospects of governing a country that has fallen so low. But "they are hoping to open people's eyes before election day."


Gerhard Gnauck in "Die Welt" explains the reasons for and consequences of the economic misery in Poland. "A small country has small problems, a large country has large problems," Poland's negotiators in Brussels are apt to say. Gnauck says the reasons for the economic disaster are also to be found in the weaknesses that have appeared in the economy of Germany, Poland's most important trading partner. But above all the roots lie in Poland itself.

Gnauck writes: "As in many post-communist countries, the government regarded itself as a money-distribution machine. The abuse of loopholes in the taxation system leading to tax evasion and the provision of questionable state support is costing the state billions. [There] is hope, if the government is prompted by these discussions, to take action now. In fact," Gnauck says, "it must do so now if EU entrance is not be jeopardized."


An analysis by Gene Mater in the "Freedom Forum" looks at the problems plaguing Russia's professional media. One of the troubles is what he calls Russia's "hidden advertising" -- a story that is written under the guise of being an honest news story when the journalist has actually been paid to treat the story's subject in a certain way.

Many journalists are unable to resist the financial temptation of writing a certain story for a price. But other problems include the journalists' own attitudes towards their work. Mater cites St. Petersburg State University professor Vladimir Osinsky, who was quoted as saying, "Stories on social issues intended to help people provoke no reaction from the authorities, thus making reporters feel worthless."

To complicate matters, journalists often run into trouble with authorities: "49 percent of the national sample saying that they had been personally involved in court cases because of their stories, with local authorities or their surrogates often filing the complaint." Mater quotes editor Nail Bashirov of "MIG" newspaper in Astrakhan as saying, "Journalists are divided into those serving the state -- and this group, unfortunately, is the majority -- and those trying to be independent."


An editorial in "Le Monde" considers the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, in light of the 28 August attack which left 12 dead, including eight civilians. "Le Monde" calls this a "new setback" for Russian troops and "the most murderous attack since last December, when 22 civilians died in the explosion of a car bomb in Alkhan-Yurt."

The Chechen war has "never stopped raging," the paper writes, and the conflict has intensified since the early summer in Grozny and the southeast of the region. Even the northern plains, the first areas "pacified" by Russian forces, are the frequent site of clashes between federal and independent forces. The paper writes: "Almost two years after their entry into Chechnya on 1 October 1999, [Russian] forces continue to be the almost daily target of murderous attacks, testifying to their incapacity to normalize the situation."


In the "Los Angeles Times," syndicated columnist William Pfaff says that the unanticipated congeniality between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush "is perhaps to be expected since Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin are both new and inexperienced leaders and have a gift to bestow mutually upon one another, that of legitimacy. The ability of each to deal with the other in a balanced and constructive manner will do much to fortify the position of each in his own country, as well as in international society."

Pfaff goes on to say that although Putin undoubtedly wants good relations with the U.S., he has other aims in mind as well. More important to him than Russian-U.S. ties is to re-establish Russia as a major force in world affairs.

Pfaff writes: "His best way to do so is through systematic opposition to what even some U.S. officials now are willing to call the American bid for global hegemony. He recognizes that the defense of a multilateral international system is widely attractive [to other, particularly European, nations]. It also is vital to Russia's own future, in determining what Russia is to become."


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Thomas Schmid considers the commitment NATO has made in Macedonia with the commencement of "Operation Essential Harvest." He writes: "With calls for the alliance's mandate to be extended beyond the original term of 30 days [becoming] ever louder, it is now clearer than ever that there can be no talk of a self-sustaining peace process in Macedonia just yet."

He says that the situation will probably not be "normalized" within this 30-day time frame, and that there is no reason to believe that the ethnic Albanians will abandon their goal of "a separate, quasi-autonomous" state. Nor should we expect that the peace treaty of Ohrid alone was enough to convince ethnic Macedonians that a pluralistic society is desirable."

Schmid writes: "Even if the harvest ends in a fiasco, owing to massive military disruptions on the part of the Albanian rebels, for example, the West will not be able to leave the country to its fate. Without actually saying so, it has in fact long since made up its mind to turn Macedonia into a NATO protectorate."