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Western Press Review: Russia's Dirty Linen

Prague, 30 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in a number of Western newspapers is disregarding the advice to the world of U.S. diplomat Strobe Talbott. Talbott, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State, says in the current issue of the U.S. magazine Newsweek that the world should, in his phrase "calm down" over reports of a massive money-laundering operation between the Bank of New York and Russia. Russian corruption is nothing new, Newsweek quotes Talbott as saying.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: There's been a bit too much going on in the West for it all to be charged to mere naivete

The Wall Street Journal Europe agrees in an editorial today that what it calls the Russian "money-laundering debacle" isn't new. But the financial newspaper declines to calm down. It says this: "The more investigators trawl the dealings of Western institutions with Russians, the more unpleasant things they are likely to find." Not just Russian mobsters, but also Russian reformers and legitimate U.S. businesspeople are implicated, the editorial says. It concludes with this: "The [U.S. Congress'] House Banking Committee plans to open hearings into all this next month. As more details emerge, the temptation will be to blame everything on the Russians. But let's not stop there. There's been a bit too much going on in the West for it all to be charged to mere naivete."

AFTENPOSTEN: Political and economic corruption will lead to massive social disturbances

Norway's Aftenposten says the money movements from Russia aren't merely allegations any more. In an editorial, Aftenposten puts the case as follows: "Revelations in the United States and in Switzerland have dramatically confirmed allegations about massive laundering of [thousands of millions] of dollars by [members of] the Russian political elite." The matter has gotten particularly sensitive, the editorial says, since Swiss investigators allegedly found bills signed by President [Boris] Yeltsin and members of his family. Aftenposten predicts worse to come. It says this: "The lack of a leadership that is capable of following a rational economic course based on law hampers the country's progress towards the creation of better living standards for its 150 million citizens. Political and economic corruption, supported by the Mafia, ultimately will lead to massive social disturbances."

WASHINGTON POST: The underlying necessity to engage remains beyond challenge

The Washington Post said in an editorial Sunday that Russia's scandal is poised to become U.S. Vice President Al Gore's political problem. Despite a long history in Russia of evident thefts, the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton has consistently prodded the International Monetary Fund to funnel more and more aid dollars to Yeltsin's Russia. The Post said, in the editorial's words: "Vice President Al Gore, who met regularly with Russia's prime minister, is particularly associated with that policy. With new allegations of Russian corruption and capital flight coming almost daily, Mr. Gore's rivals [for president] are asking what did he know, when did he know it -- and why did he not know more."

The Post said that the administration policy of continuing to show concern for Russia is sound, but the methods used may be fairly challenged. The editorial concluded: "Russia was too valuable to ignore, its potential failure too dangerous and its potential success too valuable to world order. The method of engagement can and should be questioned. But the underlying necessity to engage, it seems to us, remains beyond challenge."

WASHINGTON POST: Friedman was out there nearly alone

Washington Post commentator David Ignatius credits American freelance reporter Robert I. Friedman with doing what Ignatius calls "the groundbreaking reporting on the Russian mob that lies behind this month's headlines about an alleged [$10 billion] money-laundering scheme through the Bank of New York." Talbott's advice about calming down would be difficult for Friedman, Ignatius writes. After a New York newspaper, Village Voice, published Friedman's expose of one Russian mobster, Ignatius reports, Friedman learned that his life was in danger. Ignatius writes this: "An FBI agent told Friedman the bureau had credible information that a major organized crime figure had taken out a contract on his life. The bureau didn't provide details, but The New York Times later reported that [the mob boss] had made the assassination threat in a telephone conversation monitored by the CIA and that the contract was for $100,000."

In his commentary, Ignatius says that Friedman, in the commentary's words, "is an illustration of what the craft of journalism is really about." The commentator says also: "The looting of Russia during the 1990s -- and the [U.S.] administration's acquiescence in that mess -- has become a big story. It's now what we call a feeding frenzy with news organizations scrambling to add new morsels of information. But for years, Friedman was out there nearly alone -- risking his life to tell a story no one seemed to want to hear."

NEW YORK TIMES: The best way to combat hate speech is not to ban it

The New York Times takes on another kind of journalism issue in an editorial today. The editorial observes that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is proposing new rules for news organizations in Kosovo. The rules, says the editorial: "could hurt the cause of democracy and a free press." The OSCE is charged with developing democratic institutions in Kosovo. But it is setting up what the New York Times calls "an incipient press ministry. [That is] a media monitoring group and regulations on print and especially broadcast media." The editorial says: "This approach is overkill." The editorial says: "Monitors and regulators are a bad idea. The best way to combat hate speech is not to ban it, but to ensure that Kosovo's citizens have access to alternate views." It concludes: "It is risky to establish even well-intentioned government-controlled broadcast stations and to attempt to regulate ideas and expression in a region where these powers have been so tragically misused."

KATHIMERINI: The prospects are not favorable for the West's venture

"The Balkans will continue to be the center of the Atlantic Alliance's interest for a long time to come," commentator Costas Iordanidis wrote yesterday in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini. Iordanidis scolded the United States for its policies in Kosovo. He wrote: "The prospects are not favorable for the West's venture, at least as long as Washington and especially Secretary of State Madeleine Albright persist with their unwise and open toleration -- if not full and material support -- of the [Kosovo Liberation Army's] terrorists and their main leader Hakim Thaci." The Greek writer said NATO remains the most viable international organization left -- following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and what Iordanidis called "the decline of the UN, which the United States disregards whenever it sees fit."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The tactic seems to have worked

Turning to the Mideast, the Los Angeles Times publishes today a news analysis by Norman Kempster. Kempster writes that U.S. Secretary of State Albright is about to embark on a series of Mideast meetings that could, as he puts it, "set the tone for U.S. involvement in the troubled region for the rest of the Clinton administration, and possibly years longer."

The writer says this: "Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak insists he can make peace with the Palestinians with only minimal U.S. intervention. But virtually no one thinks a Syria-Israel agreement will be possible without the United States - and Albright personally -- doing a lot of the heavy lifting."

Kempster observes that Albright delayed her trip for more than two weeks because Barak asked her to. He says the pause enabled Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to work on a timetable for Israeli withdrawal from more of the West Bank, on Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners, on opening a seaport in the Palestinian-administered Gaza Strip, and on increased security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The news analysis adds this: "The tactic seems to have worked. Palestinian negotiators told Albright Friday that they were very close to a deal that could be signed during the secretary of state's trip."

But, Kempster says, the most emotional issues still haven't been addressed. He writes: "Many Middle East experts think that when the two sides try to wrestle with such issues as water rights, refugee returns, borders and the status of Jerusalem, the United States will have to take a more active role."