Prague, 14 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Western press commentary today focuses on a variety of timely subjects, They include Russia's current economic woes, this week's Swiss Banks' decision to set up a $1.2 billion fund for survivors of the World War II Holocaust, terrorism and Iraq's defiance of the United Nations.
NEW YORK TIMES: Russias only solution: economic reform
"The ailing Russian economy seems to have nine lives, but they are rapidly running out," says the New York Times in an editorial today. The paper writes: "The latest crisis, less than a month after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided a new bailout, is bank-based. Russian banks owe lots of dollars and are having trouble paying them back....The result Thursday was a virtual breakdown of Russia's financial markets, particularly for most government bonds. That makes it impossible to determine how much banks' bond portfolios are worth, a fact that makes lenders nervous. But to repay their loans, the banks need to sell their bonds." The editorial continues: "All of this is happening when it is too soon to know whether Russia's latest reform efforts are working. The government says tax receipts are up sharply, which is encouraging but not conclusive. Foreign currency reserves have increased, but that may be meaningless if the bank crisis intensifies."
The paper concludes: "An immediate answer to the current crisis must involve a willingness by foreign banks to be flexible regarding their loans to Russian banks that are suffering from a liquidity squeeze but are otherwise solvent. The longer-term solution, though, is unchanged. The Russians must proceed with economic reform, and show the world they can do it successfully. Parliament should stop stalling and pass needed tax reform bills immediately."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Duma has no idea how to see Russia out of crisis
In a commentary in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Urban suggests how just difficult it may be to get Russia's parliament to act. Writing from Moscow, Urban says: "Unsurprisingly, the Duma, in which the Communists and Nationalists command a majority, has blocked the entirely sensible program of reforms submitted by Russia's young prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko. In this clash between parliament and government it is not a matter of pushing through a better alternative. The Duma has no ideas of its own on how to see the Russian economy through and out of its constant crisis. Its policy is simply one of obstructing the government. So Premier Kiriyenko is once again dependent solely on President Boris Yeltsin's support. Yeltsin can decree implementation of the stabilization program" The commentary notes, however: "But that would not solve the problem. The Russian economy is paralyzed mainly by a payments crisis --and a vicious circle it is! Factories cannot pay their staff because they are not being paid for the goods they produce. They cannot pay their electricity bills either, so Russia's gigantic energy and commodities corporations are not paying taxes."
DAILY TELEGRAPH: Soros knows better than to pretend Russias finances are fine
Britain's Daily Telegraph writes in an editorial of "the inconvenient truths about Russia." The paper says in an editorial: "The first is that its government lives from hand to mouth. It does not pay its bills, and complains when its debtors retaliate. An argument over a tax demand left it threatening to expropriate Gazprom, Russia's biggest company. It is now selling shares in Gazprom, so this was not the way to reassure investors." The editorial continues: "Although their government is short of cash, a number of rich individual Russians are extremely rich. Monte Carlo is a popular place for them to stack their money. Money poured into Russia is apt to end up in their pockets..." The Daily Telegraph concludes: "The most inconvenient truth is that Russia still bristles with horrible weapons, and no one in the West likes the idea of finding them under new management.....East and West have a common interest in pretending that Russia and its finances are as right as rain. The old fox (U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros) knows better."
TIMES: Put pressure on Japan to solve its crisis in order to fix Russias
The Times of London's editorial today is entitled, "Russian Wobbles." The paper writes: "The tightrope is fraying, but it has not yet snapped. The Russian barometer rose encouragingly in the immediate aftermath of the IMF's $22.6 billion rescue package for Russia last month. The ruble strengthened, the stock market soared, even the sun came out and those Russians who can afford them headed for their dachas." It goes on: "So, after grudgingly passing some but not all of the laws needed to implement the anti-crisis package drawn up by Kiriyenko's Government, the ever-grumbling members of the Duma. Foreign governments crossed their fingers that Mr. Kiriyenko's reforming team would make the most of the breathing space to restructure Russia's $24 billion in short-term debt, raise the tax revenues needed to close its budget deficit and give longer-term reforms a chance to revive growth." But, the paper goes on: "Within only a few weeks, the clouds are back. Yesterday, yields on treasury bonds re-entered the stratosphere and the stock market took a (big) jump, dropping 15 percent before ending the day eight points down, largely because of forced selling by Russia's cash-strapped domestic banks."
The editorial concludes: "It is the most perilous of balancing acts, but the frayed rope has not snapped. For now, the most important thing governments can do is to pile pressure on to Japan, whose failure to tackle its own inherently manageable crisis is affecting confidence everywhere and thus compounding Russia's problems. Japan's political mess could yet bring about a global depression. And nobody would then be in a position to help Russia to help itself."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Swiss banks settlement with Jewish Holocaust survivors does not mean end to all conflicts
Turning to the out-of-court settlement on claims by Jewish Holocaust survivors reached Wednesday by Swiss banks, another Sueddeutsche Zeitung commentary today says it "should give all those concerned the feeling of having avoided worse." Writing from Zurich, correspondent Bernadette Calonego believes that "in this respect the settlement by which the Swiss banks will pay compensation for their guilty deeds towards people of the Jewish faith has turned out well for both sides." She goes on: "Although the sum of $1.25 billion to be paid by the big Swiss banks to Jewish class-action plaintiffs and organizations is higher than they originally intended, it is still in the realm of what other corporations have paid in settlements. The banks can take it. A boycott or wave of lawsuits in the U.S.A. would have been very expensive. It was the risk of this type of escalation which persuaded the banks to yield." Nevertheless, she adds: "The settlement does not mean the end of all conflicts. How, for example, can the US government or the World Jewish Congress prevent somebody or other lodging further claims or making further threats of a boycott on Switzerland, its banks and other institutions, despite the fact that the settlement expressly excludes that possibility?"
The commentary concludes: "The same kind of thing could happen elsewhere, in Germany for instance. At best, a settlement brings a chapter to a close, but never a history which has yet to be come to terms with."
DIE WELT: Myth of companies forced to work for Nazis destroyed
In Die Welt today, Frank Ebbinhaus writes in a commentary entitled "The Banks' Dirty Laundry" that "it took more than half a century to finally clear up one of the darkest chapters in the Nazis' reign of terror: the plundering of Jewish Holocaust victims by a financial Mafia working hand in hand with Hitler's thugs.? He says: "While Nazi murderers undertook the Jews' physical destruction, German and Swiss financiers took care of the profitable realization of their money and property. The range of atrocities stretches from the "Aryanization" of Jewish firms which left owners empty-handed, through the clearing of numbered accounts which worried investors had opened in Switzerland, to the international trade in gold teeth forcibly extracted from concentration camp inmates. This ensured that in case of a German defeat, the survivors of the genocide would be permanently denied of their material existence."
The commentary adds: "For decades, companies embellished the myth of being forced to work for the Nazi -- in short, they said, they were victims, too. But after massive external pressure has forced them to let historians rummage in their archives, the circle of criminals and their willing helpers has continued to spread to now the top addresses in the financial world." Ebbinhaus goes on: "Large banks and insurance companies profited from their confidential cooperation with the Nazi regime, thus creating an excellent starting point for post-war reconstruction. This they managed to conceal for many long years. And therein lies the scandal."
WASHINGTON POST: Settlement could be seen as banks admission of guilt
The Washington Post's William Drozdiak says in a news analysis today that "while the accord may defuse the risk of economic warfare between the U.S. and Switzerland, the bruised feelings caused by the three-year controversy over charges of (Swiss-) Nazi financial collaboration and the traumatic loss of faith in the Alpine state's claim to have been a heroic redoubt of rectitude will take much longer to heal." Drozdiak quotes an editorial yesterday in the respected Neue Zuericher Zeitung, which he calls "the nation's most influential paper," as saying: "It will be difficult to explain to Swiss citizens why one is yielding to blackmail. For them, honor and dignity are values on which you cannot place a price, and they could have the impression that the big banks' action will be seen as an admission of guilt."
LOS ANGELES TIMES: Long-term threat of ideological terrorism very small
In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times today, U.S. strategic analyst Edward Luttwak distinguishes between what he calls "political" and 'ideological" terrorism. He writes: "All attacks against civilian targets count as terrorism if executed outside a state of war, but what the world has been used to since antiquity is political terrorism. Like any other political act, from putting up a poster to mass demonstrations violent or not, it has a recognizable purpose. That in turn invariably requires that the terrorists identify themselves."
He continues: "Recently, however, the world has been confronted by the very different phenomenon of ideological terrorism. Its identifying characteristic is the lack of identification; its violence is anonymous. Buildings are blown up, many are killed, as in New York City, Dhahran and now both Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, and nobody claims the act. The purpose cannot be political, because no group is asserting its power to...destroy and kill."
Luttwak adds: "Ideological terrorism is not, therefore, a violent form of political propaganda but rather a small-scale form of war. As in any war, the aim is to defeat the enemy -- normally by destroying whatever targets can be destroyed, the more important the better." He adds: "The more extreme Islamic fundamentalists -- the most likely culprits (for the East African attacks) -- would like to destroy every church, every government building, every institution in the Western world to pave the way for the victory of Islam. Because they can only attack a few buildings in the most vulnerable places, they naturally choose American targets, because in their minds the U. S. is the shield and sword of the entire Western world."
The commentary concludes: "The long-term threat of ideological terrorism is virtually nil, because its attacks are too sporadic to cause any real damage. It is futile as a weapon of war simply because its scale is too small. Nor can it achieve any political results. No government, however fragile, can be seriously weakened by anonymous violence, and certainly no government can negotiate when there is nobody to talk to. That is of small comfort to the victims of the latest cruelties."
WASHINGTON POST: Ethnic cleansing continues in Kosovo and the West stands idly by
Two national U.S. newspapers have strongly criticized what they consider softened Washington policies toward Kosovo and Iraq. The Washington Post wrote yesterday: "More than five months have passed since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flatly warned Serb strong-man Slobodan Milosevic that the U.S. would not tolerate ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. 'We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia,' Secretary Albright declared." But the paper noted: "Now tens of thousands of Kosovo civilians are living like hunted animals in the woods, their homes bombed and burned out by Mr. Milosevic's troops, their livestock slaughtered, their crops destroyed. More than 300,000 civilians, some 15 percent of Kosovo's total population, have been forced from their homes. Ethnic cleansing...is in full swing. And the United States is...standing by and watching."
The paper went on to say: "(Recently) Secretary Albright...sent Mr. Milosevic 'a very forceful message,' her spokesman said, 'in which the Secretary expressed her shock and dismay over the effects of the on-going Serb military offensive in Kosovo. ... ' Shock and dismay? Please. The time is long past for sending messages and for feigning surprise at Mr. Milosevic's long-established villainy." The editorial concluded: "If President Clinton and the West are not prepared to act, they should at least have the decency to retreat into shamed silence."
LOS ANGELES TIMES: United States once again is indecisive on Iraq
The Los Angeles Times today writes of what it calls "Perilous weakness on Iraq." In an editorial, the paper says: "The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, warns that Iraq's decision to stop cooperating with UN arms inspectors could mean that it is again preparing to try to build nuclear weapons. (But) confronted last week with Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with the weapons inspectors, the UN Security Council could do no better than produce its customary demand that Iraq behave itself, pointedly omitting any 'or else' to lend emphasis to its determination. The United States proved to be no more decisive."
The editorial continues: "Six months ago, when (Saddam) Hussein last blocked the inspectors from doing their work, the U.S. and Britain significantly added to their military forces near Iraq. Most of that augmentation has since been withdrawn. If President Clinton again wanted to put muscle behind American support for UN resolutions on Iraq, he would have to order another costly movement of ships, planes and personnel to the Persian Gulf. Moreover, he would have to do so in the face of opposition from Iraq's sympathizers and apologists, including Russia and France on the Security Council, and a probable lack of support from American public opinion."
The paper sums up: "For now, the Administration is temporizing. Maybe, despite its earlier tough words, that's all it intends to do. If so, and if Baghdad does not yield to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan's latest plea to resume cooperating with the arms inspectors, Hussein will have achieved a major political victory. Iraq has shown it can live with the sanctions. Soon the Middle East may find it must live with an Iraq that, with little interference, is rearming itself with weapons of mass destruction."