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World Press Review: Russia's Economic Woes; Reactions To The Taliban; Arafats Authoritarianism

By Joel Blocker/Annie Hillar

Prague, 13 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Commentary in the Western press focuses on several of the world's pressing problems. They include Russias economic woes, Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat's political difficulties and this week's victory of the Taliban Islamic militia in Afghanistan, giving the extremist group apparent control of the country.

JOURNAL OF COMMERCE: Its time for Russia to solve own economic problems

Several papers assess Russia's continuing economic problems. The U.S. financial daily Journal of Commerce yesterday, in a brief editorial entitled "Russia on the Brink," said that "Russia may be too big to fail, but the beleaguered country seems headed inexorably in that direction." The editorial went on: "(Tuesday's Russian stock) plunge came despite a $300 million installment from the bailout package approved for Russia last month. But even that couldn't boost market confidence. What would help is approval by the Parliament of a package of economic reforms to be considered next week." The paper concluded: "Other countries have done all they can to help Russia. It's time for (President) Boris Yeltsin and company to help themselves."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Poor tax collection not the reason for Russias economic situation

The same day, The Wall Street Journal asked: "So what does $22.6 billion get you? In Russia, the answer is: about three weeks of relatively calm markets. Three weeks into the famous IMF bailout, it's clear that the 'rescue' isn't doing the job." As evidence, the paper cites these facts: "Yields on government Treasurys climbed to 150 percent yesterday, while prices on foreign debt have sunk to all-time lows. Russia's stock index, down some 70 percent for the year, plummeted nine percent on Monday and was suspended midday Tuesday after another drop of over nine percent."

The editorial continued: "Russia's economic woes can't be boiled down, as the IMF would have it, to poor tax collection. This is an economy where most payments between enterprises are in barter, if they are made at all, and where wages and taxes are assessed but not paid. In this environment, a company's chances of success are held down by debt and cash shortages." The paper concluded: "The danger is that, unhappy with its tax take after a flurry of 'reforms,' the Government will put up taxes again and try to force companies to cough up more payments. Foreign investors will shop around for other markets raising the borrowing costs of the government further. Boris (Yeltsin) will put in another call to Washington, and another bailout will be in play. It's striking how fast you can burn through $22 billion these days."

FINANCIAL TIMES: U.S. financier Soros says solution forRussia currency board, devaluation of ruble

In Britain's Financial Times today, U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, who has provided Russia with substantial aid in past years, writes (in a letter to the editor): "The meltdown in Russian financial markets has reached the terminal phase....The trouble is," Soros continues, "is that the action that is necessary to deal with a banking crisis is diametrically opposed to the action agreed with the IMF to deal with the budget crisis." He says that "the best solution would be to introduce a currency board (backed by international contributions of up to $50 billion) after a modest devaluation of 15 to 20 percent. The devaluation is necessary to correct the decline in oil prices and to reduce the amount of reserves needed for the currency board. It would also penalize the holders of ruble-denominated government debt, rebutting charges of a bailout." Soros adds: " If action is delayed, the cost of rescue will continue to mount....Unfortunately, international financial authorities do not appreciate the urgency of the situation. The alternatives are default or hyper-inflation. Either would have devastating financial and political consequences."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Russia, Iran uneasy about Talibans advance

Turning to the Islamic Taliban's victory in Afghanistan, Rudolph Chimelli of Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung notes today that "Iran and Russia, and even the rulers of the Central Asian republics Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are following the Taliban militia's progress in Afghanistan with the greatest of disquiet. From Teheran," he goes on, "General Rahim Safawi, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, has been sent to the Afghan border to announce that the parallel army which he heads will oppose any attempt to foment unrest. Russia has put on alert its 20,000 troops in Tajikistan and the forces it still has stationed in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia." Chimelli's commentary goes on: "For Iran, the Taliban are an annoyance on several counts. Their archaic style of government has brought fundamentalist Islam into disrepute. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has even accused them of 'genocide in the name of Islam.'"

As for Moscow, Chimelli adds, "only last week the Russians imperiously demanded an end to the Taliban offensive as it headed north. The Taliban chose to ignore the Russian demand. Worried by the prospect of Islamism crossing the southern border of the former Soviet Union, the presidents of Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan met in Moscow in May to set up a new three-cornered alliance within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)." But Chimelli warns in conclusion: "Russia and Iran, however, have scant influence on what happens in Afghanistan any more. Their support in the country is on the decline."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Afghanistan proves Islam rife with internal clashes

Los Angles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff writes today: "The Taliban, 'students of theology,' now control nearly all of Afghanistan, having conquered the last strongholds of both Uzbek and Tajik resistance, as well forces of the Shiite Hazaras, allied with Iran. None of these groups, however, is disposed to submit to the Taliban, and all are linked to cross-border ethnic supporters." Pfaff's commentary continues: "Afghanistan provides another demonstration that Islamic civilization has more than enough internal conflict to distract it from that 'clash of civilizations' with the West that is fancied in some Western discussion. Even fundamentalists are fighting one another, for reasons of nationalism." Pfaff adds: "The Taliban are financed by Saudi Arabia, America's main Arab ally --indeed, its client in the Middle East, guardian of the oil resources on which the West depends. Osama bin Laden, the man identified in early press reports as a possible organizer of last Friday's terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is a Saudi Arabian and supposedly now in Afghanistan, protected by the Taliban. His aim is (said to be) to expel the U.S. and it influence from the Muslin world."

NEW YORK TIMES: For many Afghans, Taliban inevitable reaction to modern warfare destroying ancient society

In a news analysis in today's New York Times, correspondent John Burns says that "a quarter-of-a-century after the overthrow of the monarchy started Afghanistan on a downward spiral into fratricide and destruction, the Islamic hard-liners of the Taliban movement appear to be on the brink of re-unifying the country and imposing their vision of a purist Islamic society." With this," he adds, "the Taliban thus appear to be on the verge of doing something that neither the Soviet invaders in the 1980s nor the U.S.-backed guerrillas who ousted them were unable to do: Bringing peace to a weary, demoralized and underfed country of between 15 million and 20 million people." Writing from New Delhi, Burns continues: "The outcome is full of tragic irony for a nation that seemed set on a diametrically opposite course in 1973, when King Zahir Shah, the last representative of the Durrani dynasty that had ruled the country for 250 years, was ousted..."

The commentary goes on: "When the Taliban first appeared, in 1995, many in the West were dismayed. But to many Afghans, the rise of the movement rooted in the ancient ways of the Afghan village, with its insistence on strict forms of purdah for women and summary executions, or amputations, for adulterers, blasphemers and thieves, seemed like an inevitable consequence of the conflict in which modern weapons, poured in with scant consideration for the civilian population, had reduced an ancient society to rubble."

Burns explains further: "With many schools, hospitals and highways destroyed, the way was cleared for a band of village clerics to offer their own brand of salvation. While educated Afghans recoiled, many others in a country that is overwhelmingly rural accommodated quickly to the Taliban's social strictures. To villagers, and to many city-dwellers, too, what mattered most was that the Taliban held out the prospect of ending a civil war in which most of the factions have long since become little more than warlords, sustaining their rule by banditry, pillage and rape." Still, Burns concludes, "the Taliban's main challenge seems likely to lie at home, among millions of Afghans who yearn for peace, but not for the harsh life vouchsafed by the Taliban. For these people, the prospect now is for years of living in a society not much different in its political, religious and social rigors from the Afghanistan of the distant past. So far, the signs have been that Western pressure for greater tolerance may not only be ineffective, but a stir that pushes the Muslim clerics who control the Taliban to adopt still harsher constraint"

FINANCIAL TIMES: With Arafats Palestinian Authority democracy may not be possible

Yasser Arafats troubles as Palestine Authority (PA) President attract the attention of two commentators today. In the Financial Times, correspondent Judy Dempsey says that "fears are growing that a democracy may not be possible under Arafat." She quotes a Palestinian parliamentarian (Ziad Abu-Amr writing in the 'Journal of Palestine Studies) as saying recently: "The new Palestinian order after the establishment of the PA is incapable of effecting a smooth and incremental process of transition from the logic of 'revolution' to the logic of 'state' and 'civil society.' Dempsey comments: "The press, for example, remains censored....Local government is in bad shape as well, almost devoid of power....Even local government elections, scheduled to take place a year ago, have been canceled...The judicial system is no better shape..." She concludes: "Even Mr. Arafat's supporters admit that he has failed to develop his revolutionary cast of mind and cannot get much beyond his dream of an independent Palestine. They also say that he has devoted his entire life to confronting Israel, caring little about the task of building the infrastructure needed for a state."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Arafats Palestine one more authoritarian entity

In the Los Angles Times today, Yisrael Medad --who the paper describes as a Jewish settler activist in Israel-- says bluntly that the "Palestinian Authority is too corrupt to govern." Medad writes in a commentary: "Arafat, despite seeming successes, foremost the creation of a beachhead on what he considers Palestinian soil, has made many mistakes over the years....Just days ago, the much-hailed Hanan Ashrawi, minister for tourism, resigned from Arafat's new Palestinian Cabinet. Her reason? Not enough was being done to stop corruption in the PA. The new Cabinet has been widely criticized because last year a special internal report accused many of the ministers of corruption." Medad concludes: "Arafat's Palestine, even limited as it is, is but one more authoritarian entity. The people in charge embezzle; Arab real estate agents who preferred to do business with Jews were murdered; other Arabs suspected of crimes were tortured and killed....But who will speak for the unfortunate Palestinians?"