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Western Press Review: Central Asia, Stalinism, US-EU

Prague, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today touches on a wide variety of subjects. Our selection begins with comments on Central Asian autocracy and Stalinism, and continues with the more topical issues that this week sparked angry U.S.-West European public quarrels. They include the escalating trade war between the U.S. and the European Union, and touch as well on EU complaints about the U.S. execution of a German-born murderer and anger over its acquittal of an American military pilot responsible for the accidental death of 20 Italians last year.

NEW YORK TIMES: Autocratic rule could give way to instability

The New York Times discusses "Unstable Autocracies in Central Asia" in an editorial today. The paper writes: "A series of car bombs recently exploded at the Government's headquarters in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, killing 16 people. They narrowly missed the country's leader, Islam Karimov --a sign that the stability provided by the dictators of Central Asia and the Caucasus can be quickly upended....The attempt on Karimov, and the failing health of President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, are reminders that autocratic rule could give way to instability when the dictators die."

The editorial continues: "Most of the leaders in the region have focused all politics around loyalty to themselves and blocked the development of political institutions. There are few serious political parties, parliaments or courts and no mechanisms for a peaceful transition of power. The most democracy is found in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, and the least in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the most populous nation."

The NYT adds: "Many of the leaders encourage potentially volatile clan politics, [and] repression of religion [especially in Uzbekistan] is another practice that could cause future unrest.... While all the dictators claim to welcome foreign investment, most will not institute market reforms or anti-corruption measures that might stimulate economic growth.... Instead of building stability through economic growth and the construction of political institutions, Central Asia's dictators count on smothering dissent. That kind of artificial, temporary stability often ends in explosive unrest."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: People need to be reminded of insane ideologies

In a commentary for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the British-born historian of communism, Robert Conquest, warns that "'dispassion' about Stalinism distorts its horrors." Discussing the airing this week in the U.S. (PBS) of "Stolen Years," a documentary on the Soviet Gulag --for which Conquest was a consultant-- he recalls: "The Gulag was only part of the Stalinist scheme of things, which included mass executions, mass torture and a huge apparatus of lies imposed on the Soviet citizen and peddled to the woozy Westerner."

Conquest goes on to say: "Knowledge of the truth has in fact been available for over half a century in a series of books by victims of the Gulag who had reached the West, and in analyses by Western scholars. But Soviet authorities denied the Gulag's nature, even its existence, and many Western intellectuals accepted their disavowals.... The whole nature of the Gulag was known, too, to Western governments, even if seldom used in their polemics with Moscow..." Conquest adds: "People [still] need to be reminded of the true record of the insane ideologies [Nazism as well as Stalinism] our century has produced.... It is not only that such things are forgotten; they are often still actively distorted by those who stand between the facts and the public --academics, certain film producers, who usually claim they are 'dispassionate' and 'non-judgmental'.... One of the best scholars in the field, Vladimir Brovkin, was damagingly attacked a few months his academic colleagues not for any intellectual deficiency, but merely for being too 'anti-communist.'"

Conquest concludes: "Now we are told, and not only by odd academics, that to describe the Soviet record is a sign of a [so-called] Cold-War mentality and...that there was not much to choose from between the West and Communists in that confrontation. Thus, we get the proposition that the West was as bad as, or as much to blame, as the Communist, or nearly so. Nor, of course, are we allowed to be glad that we prevailed --[we are told] that would be 'triumphalism.'"

ECONOMIST: America and Europe are at war

Turning to the current U.S.-EU dispute over --of all things-- bananas, Anglophone press commentators have a hard time resisting punning on the English-language phrase, "going bananas". Thus, the current issue of the British weekly Economist carries an editorial, headed with that phrase, which says: "America and Europe are starting a trade war over bananas. Their restlessness risks testing the young World Trade Organization [WTO] to a breaking point."

The editorial declares flatly, and seriously: "America and Europe are at war. America," it recalls, "fired the first shots on March 3, in frustration at the EU's failure, despite two rulings against it by the WTO, to stop discriminating against Latin American bananas distributed by American companies....The effect [of the immediate sanctions imposed by the U.S.] will be to wipe out a swathe of luxury imports from Italian pecorina cheese to British cashmere sweaters to Louis Vuiton handbags from France."

"It would be easy to scoff" at such hardships, the magazine continues. "Yet this tiff is deadly serious. It jeopardizes the WTO...and could quickly escalate, since America and Europe are also at odds over hormone-treated beef, genetically modified foods and much else. And like most trade wars, [this one] is perverse. America's sanctions will not hurt European distributors... but will harm [other] European producers who have nothing to do with fruit...The immediate priority," the Economist declares, "must be for both sides to seek compromises, before more damage is done."

SUEDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Both the EU and the U.S. are guilty of breaching free-trade principles

Writing today in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, under the title "Sinners All," Editorial-Page Director Josef Joffe finds that "the EU and the U.S. are both guilty of breaching free-trade principles [in what he calls this] stupid banana business."

Joffe first takes on the Americans, writing: "In principle, Washington has always defended free trade whether against big offenders such as China and Japan or smaller ones such as the European Union (EU). But in practice, the Clinton Administration has increasingly opted for managed trade. That is a euphemism for the opposite of free trade, for bilateral agreements between the U.S. and [another] state which create certain advantages for both partners --and only for them. Logically, such arrangements also create disadvantages for all other states."

Then he digs into the EU, saying: "It has likewise been offending.... The current EU banana-import regulations create for the former [Central and Latin American] colonial powers of Britain and France a hefty advantage for their [former colonies'] bananas. But the laws are very much to the disadvantage of EU consumers, who now have to pay [for bananas] about twice as much as they otherwise would."

Joffe, like the Economist, calls for a cease-fire, concluding: "It would now be a good moment for both trading giants, the EU and the U.S. to end the nonsense on both sides to the advantage of their own, as well as world, trade."

There was no joking in either Western Europe or the U.S. over the State of Arizona's execution on Wednesday [March 3] of German citizen Walter Lagrande, a convicted murderer. Today's German press, in particular, expresses varying degrees of outrage at the U.S.' continued use of the death penalty, which is outlawed in almost all EU member states (Britain makes an exception for certain grave crimes, such as high treason).

THE REHEINISCHE POST: Arizona's execution should delight the Milosevics of this world

The Rheinische Post, published in Duesseldorf, says the U.S. has managed at once to, in its word, "bend" international law and lose credibility as a champion of human rights. That, the paper adds, "should delight the [Slobodan] Milosevics of this world."

NEUE PRESSE: An 'eye for an eye' has long been proven wrong

In Hanover, the Neue Presse says that the argument of an "'eye for an eye', like most other bar-room slogans, has long been proven wrong. The death sentence," the paper adds, "is not a deterrent, and it certainly doesn't save money. The complicated process leading up to an execution [in the U. S.] costs as much as four times more than a life sentence."

LUEBECKER NACHRICHTEN: America has behaved like a bully on a school playground

The Luebecker Nachrichten is more caustic in its criticism, even evoking the banana war to strengthen its point: "When banana exports are at stake," the paper writes, "the U.S. insists on adherence to international contracts and goes as far as to threaten Europeans with sanctions. When it is a matter of the death sentence, however, the U.S. even ignores [a plea from] the International Court [in the Hague. Lagrande was] executed because Arizona authorities refused to allow German authorities time to provide competent lawyers. America has behaved like a bully on a school playground."

Other German dailies comment on the clearing yesterday by a U.S. military court of involuntary manslaughter [correct] charges against Marine pilot Richard Ashby. Early last year, a U.S. plane stationed at the northern Italian NATO base of Aviano and commanded by Ashby accidentally severed cables in the Italian Alpine ski resort of Cavalese. That caused the immediate death of 20 vacationing Europeans [including eight Germans], whose gondola crashed after a more than 100-meter fall.

NORDBAYWEISCHE KURIER: guilt or innocence is often determined by the legal abilities of the defense

"No one is guilty in the Cavalese tragedy," writes the Nordbayerische Kurier, "and there is nothing that anyone can do about it, either. Pilot Richard Ashby had good defense lawyers," the paper continues. "That's the U.S. legal system, which has in the past been called into question not only because of the murder trial [a few years ago] of [former football star] O.J. Simpson [who was acquitted]. In the U.S., guilt or innocence is often not determined by the seriousness of the crime, but by the legal abilities of the defense."

VOLKSZEITUNG: Much of the trial smelled of a cover-up

The Leipziger Volkszeitung is equally dubious about U.S. justice, saying that "Ashby's chances of being found guilty were around zero." That's because, the paper explains, "all eight jurors judging over him were Marines. A conviction would have meant six of the jury decided against him. [There was little chance of that, and] much of the trial smelled of a cover-up."

USA TODAY: The blame belongs higher up

The U.S. national daily USA Today sees the Ashby case differently. The paper writes in its editorial today: "Ashby's acquittal by a jury of fellow Marines offers no wider exoneration. Just the contrary. By accepting the defense argument that charges of recklessness and negligence were invalidated by mitigating circumstances, the jury merely focused blame higher up, which is where most of it belongs." The editorial goes on: "Ashby's squadron commander had already lost his job, and he and the unit safety officer were formally reprimanded last year for 'supervisory error.' That's putting it mildly," the paper adds. "The maps given out to flight crews didn't show the gondola lift on [Cavalese's] steep mountainside...even though it had been there for [more than 20 years]. The flight rules issued didn't include a long-established ban on flying below 2,000 feet above the terrain."

"Further," USA Today writes, "even if not criminal, Ashby's flight record that day -- hopping in and out of narrow valleys at faster than authorized speeds, dipping to below 400 feet and performing high-risk aerobatics-- was scarcely unique."

The editorial concludes: "Low-level training is an essential part of any modern air force. But that's hardly license to endanger innocent bystanders. In the wake of the Ashby verdict, the [U.S.] military sorely needs to show it's willing to change a culture that puts crews, civilians and its costly machinery at needless risk. A year after the Cavalese tragedy evoked outrage, it has yet to make that case."