Prague, 24 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary today touches on the West's policies toward Serbia's continuing military offensive against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and the possible softening of Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime.
Late yesterday, with strong backing from the West, the United Nations Security Council demanded an immediate cease-fire and negotiations to end the conflict in Kosovo. Several West European newspapers discuss the Security Council's resolution, criticizing the West's failure so far to persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his military action in the province.
TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: Each week that passes increases the bill the West will have to pay
"The West Is Paying the Bill for Its Passivity in Kosovo" is the title of a signed editorial in Switzerland's Tribune de Geneve. Andre Naef calls the Security Council resolution "the result of a consensus among Russia, Belgrade's traditional protector, and the Western powers." He writes: "But different interpretations (of the resolution) are possible: Through the voice of its new foreign minister, Moscow has reiterated its opposition to the use of force, while NATO's defense ministers, meeting this week in Portugal, are discussing possible scenarios for a military intervention."
Naef continues: "Recent history, however, hardly encourages optimism. In the Spring, Slobodan Milosevic --fearing a tough response from NATO, similar to its 1995 action in Bosnia-- was relatively restrained in his offensive against supporters of Kosovar independence. At the time, the Western powers missed a good opportunity to put out the fire in Kosovo at little cost. (When they didn't act and) there was no longer any fear of foreign intervention, Serb forces went all-out, annihilating entire rebel villages and provoking the exodus of some 250,000 people."
The editorial concludes: "The shock-wave created by the Kosovo conflict has now gone beyond the province itself, touching neighboring Albania where ex-President (Sali) Berisha's dream of a 'Greater Albania' moved him recently to attempt a coup d'etat. Each week that passes increases the bill the West will inevitably have to pay for its timidity in acting when the moment was ripe and the human cost much less than today."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: The resolution only repeats threats
Two German newspapers also express doubts about the strength of the UN resolution. In its editorial, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says that "the resolution does not provide a basis for a (Western) intervention (in Kosovo). It only repeats officially threats that have become so mundane for the Yugoslav President that he hardly takes them into account."
The FAZ goes on to say: "Not even the Western diplomats who drafted the resolution are agreed on its political and military aspects. And...Russia continues to refuse to countenance the use of any kind of force to end Serb despotism in Kosovo."
The paper adds: "As much as NATO is preparing itself militarily (for a possible intervention), in the Pentagon itself there is a limited willingness to attack. Whether NATO could still eventually compel restraint in Belgrade is therefore questionable. Based on the experience so far, it is to be expected that the situation of the Albanians in Kosovo will become more difficult, more hopeless."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Sanctioned military intervention is far from fearsome
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung calls the UN resolution "a happy --even though false-- message from New York." In its editorial, the SZ writes: "The UN has (finally) had the courage to move toward a resolution of the Kosovo conflict. In so doing, the world body has undermined NATO's old argument that without UN approval the Alliance could not act in Kosovo. (But) the military intervention that has now been sanctioned is far from being a fearsome one. The resolution is a warning without teeth. It's still Slobodan Milosevic against the world, and this can go on for a long time."
EL PAIS: It is certainly worthwhile to try to keep Kosovo under control
Spain's El Pais daily is more optimistic about the chances for an effective NATO intervention in Kosovo. Discussing the meeting of the Alliance's defense ministers in Portugal, the paper writes: "Finally, the international community seems ready to send a serious warning to Milosevic to start down the path toward dialogue and work out a decent solution for Kosovo. NATO is preparing to present today a plan of military action --the only language that the Yugoslav President seems to understand-- supported by the UN Security Council."
El Pais' editorial continues: "This penultimate warning doesn't come too late, but it is late nonetheless. For the Yugoslav President took advantage of international passivity this summer to carry out military and police offensives in July and August that achieved his principle military objectives in Kosovo."
It sums up: "Intervention in Kosovo --or at least a credible way of threatening to intervene in order to force a dialogue-- has become an urgent necessity. For Kosovo could easily become an even larger tragedy, both because of the escalation of violence in the province itself and because it is no longer an isolated conflict."
The paper adds: "The election results in Bosnia are, at least in part, not favorable to the peace process, with (Bosnian) Serb radicals sounding off about their partial victory. At the same time, Albania is sinking into a profound internal crisis. The entire area is now potentially explosive. It is certainly worthwhile to try keep it under control."
FINANCIAL TIMES: Iran will not dispatch assassins to carry out the 'fatwa'
Some West European newspapers comment today on signs that Iran's Islamic fundamentalist Government may be softening its stance. Britain's Financial Times says that "a flurry of excitement has greeted (recent) remarks by Mohammed Khatami, Iran's reformist President, saying he regards the Salman Rushdie affair as over. (Do) these comments amount to a shift in Tehran's position (?) Almost certainly," the paper says, "they do not."
In an editorial, the FT recalls: "Mr. Rushdie was sentenced to death in a religious edict issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, Iran's late Supreme Leader, who held his novel 'The Satanic Verses' to be blasphemous against Islam....Mr. Khatami's Government (has) repeatedly said (it) has no authority to revoke the 'fatwa,' but pledged that Iran will not dispatch assassins to carry it out."
The editorial continues: "There is now speculation that the Iranian President's statement presages cancellation of the (fatwa). But this looks...improbable in the short term. (It can only be canceled by) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomenei's successor as Supreme Leader (and the) figure around whom hard-liners crushed by Mr. Khatami's landslide victory last year have tried to regroup to oppose reform."
The FT concludes: "(Britain) is of course right to press for an end to Mr. Rushdie's intolerable situation. But given the delicate balance of power in Iran, it is unlikely to get a cut and dried resolution now."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: No-one seems powerful enough to simply banish 'fatwa'
In a commentary for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung today, Tomas Avenarius agrees, in his phrase, that "no-one can simply undo Ayatollah Khomenei's Rushdie decree." Avenarius writes: "The fatwa demonstrated more than Khomenei's rather Stalinist approach to freedom of speech; it was terror in a religious guise. Ever since, the West has been bringing pressure on Iran to withdraw the fatwa and let the British writer live in peace."
The commentary continues: "Iran has long replied that it does not want any harm to come to Rushdie. Now President Mohammed Khatami has been asked, directly, why Iran does not simply call the fatwa off. His reply: the fatwa is not a judgment of the state, but of Khomenei in his capacity as an independent, Islamic jurist....The president added: 'We should consider the Salman Rushdie matter as completely finished.'"
Avenarius adds: "There is already world-wide speculation about what Khatami meant by 'finished.' Did this rather pliable word point to a change in policy, or does it continue to mean 'We are not responsible for the actions of private individuals?'
He concludes: "It is clear that Khatami has no interest in claiming Rushdie's head, but he will not say that clearly. For his powerful political opponents at home are just waiting to challenge him on this contentious issue....Khomenei's blood fatwa is proving to be something of a satanic condemnation: No-one seems powerful enough to simply banish it from this world."
INDEPENDENT: Clerics are losing their grip
Britain's daily Independent today carries a new analysis by the paper's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, that says the "clerics (are starting) to lose their grip in Iran." Fisk writes: "Four days ago, in a speech (in Beirut) that was completely ignored in the West, Iran's influential Culture Minister, Ayatollah Mohajerani, claimed 80 percent of the Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guards voted for President Mohammed Khatami in last year's election. It was an important assertion because --if true-- it means that the Iranian President who demands a 'dialogue among civilizations' has the muscle to ensure that his country never again falls into the hands of conservative clerics."
The analysis goes on to says: "If President Khatami says Iran seeks a peaceful solution to the Afghanistan crisis, then that is what it will do. If he says his Government will not try to kill Salman Rushdie, then Rushdie is safe from all but the most intransigent elements."
Fisk asks: "Can the Iranians do anything more?" He answers: "Instead of invading Afghanistan...they have chosen to meet neighboring countries and accept a U.S. proposal for an immediate cease-fire, a negotiated settlement for all Afghanistan's ethnic groups and an international investigation into the slaughter of civilians."
He concludes: "Iran --so long the target of Western condemnation for its alleged 'backwardness'-- now finds itself in the position of condemning the Taliban's pseudo-Islamic laws against women and their ferocious punishments --knowing full well that the Taliban is a paid creature of Saudi Arabia, Washington's favorite ally in the Gulf."