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Western Press Review: Commentators Assess Kosovo, Oslo, Armenia, China

Prague, 2 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on a variety of subjects. One is the lessons the West is learning from the recent Kosovo conflict and its aftermath. A second is today's meeting in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, of Israeli and Palestinian leaders -- also attended by the U.S. president and Russian prime minister -- intended to reinvigorate the Mideast peace process. There are also some comments on China and last week's assassination of high government officials in Armenia.

TIMES: The prevention of mass murder remains a war aim of which NATO can be proud

On Kosovo, the Times of London asks provocatively today: "How many bodies make a genocide?" The paper writes in an editorial: "The forensic experts who have been in Kosovo since NATO's bombing campaign ended in June, unearthing grisly evidence of mass murder that NATO's wartime reports indicated, are reaching a surprising conclusion. The number of ethnic Albanians murdered or executed during the springtime hostilities may be lower than at first suspected -- perhaps in the hundreds, not tens of thousands."

This, the paper goes on, "has been taken up as a stick with which to beat NATO, [with accusations that Alliance officials] deliberately made up the accusation that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic planned the destruction of Kosovo Albanians. The accusation of genocide was sometimes used as a moral justification for intervention. If it is not now backed by vast numbers of mass graves, critics allege that those who backed NATO were the victims of [propaganda]."

The editorial adds: "The picture that NATO officials painted during the war of events inside Kosovo was, legitimately, as dark as available information permitted .... [Today's] less bloodstained picture undoubtedly discredits the individuals who rushed to bandy [toss about] exaggerated accusations of 'genocide' .... But it does nothing to invalidate NATO's rationale for fighting. Intervention was necessary to stop Serb forces committing mass atrocities .... The prevention of mass murder and ethnic cleansing, on whatever scale, remains a war aim of which NATO can be proud."

FINANCIAL TIMES: A real increase in Europe's defense capacity will only come from acquiring new equipment

Another British daily, the Financial Times, uses the Kosovo conflict to make some points about Western Europe's lack of military independence. The paper's editorial says: "Among the gaps in Europe's defenses exposed by the Kosovo conflict was a lack of 'strategic lift' -- aircraft and ships to get soldiers and equipment to the theater of war." It goes on: "Europe's fleets of military transport aircraft were too small and old. And there was insufficient coordination; each country moved its own cargoes. ...European efforts paled beside those of the U.S."

The paper calls a recent suggestion by German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping for a joint European air transport command "sensible." But it quickly adds that "pooling assets is not ... an adequate answer to the problems shown by Kosovo. ... A real increase in Europe's defense capacity will only come," it adds, "from acquiring new equipment. [That equipment] should not just be in 'lift,' but in communications, reconnaissance, precision-guided weapons and air-to-air refueling tankers."

The Financial Times concludes: "In transport aircraft, European governments are due in the next few months to decide whether to order the European Airbus's new [transport] or go separate ways with other alternatives. But [whatever individual countries decide on air transport,] in the long term Europe will not win the benefits of [its] current consolidation of defense industries unless it improves its woeful record in collaboration on defense procurement."

INFORMATION: The war has brought no peace between the Kosovo Serbs and the province's Albanians

In Denmark, the daily Information says in its editorial today: "The writing of Kosovo history will continue for a long time to come. As a means of solving the Kosovo conflict, the war has had some nasty side effects." One of the most important of them, the paper says, "is that in addition to the sheer physical destruction it inflicted, the war has brought no peace between the Kosovo Serbs and the province's Albanians." This is true, Information adds, despite the presence of 47,000 KFOR troops [in Kosovo]."

The paper sums up: "NATO's bombs put the Albanians back in the province, but they did not end the inter-community hatred. Momcilo Trajkovic [the prominent Serb leader in Kosovo who was wounded Sunday night, presumably by ethnic Albanian gunmen] will not be the last victim of this conflict."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: Fortunately the stalled peace process has been given a recent push forward

Another Danish daily, Berlingske Tidende, comments on today's meeting in neighboring Norway of the U.S. president and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The paper writes in an editorial: "The purpose of Bill Clinton's visit to Oslo is apparently to get a first-hand impression of the extremely complicated Middle East peace process negotiations that are to begin shortly. There has been little movement by either party since Israel and the Palestinians decided [several weeks ago] to make a final deal on the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem by next September. That decision implied that the whole process initiated in Oslo six years ago would be finished by [next September]."

"Fortunately," the paper goes on, "the stalled peace process has been given a recent push forward: Israel's opening of a land corridor between Gaza and the West Bank. For many Palestinians ... this has turned out to be the only palpable result of the 1993 Oslo agreements until now." But, the editorial adds, "this step cannot conceal the fact that there is still a huge gap between the negotiating parties on all of the important issues."

The paper says that "the main problem ... is how to found a Palestinian state that is large enough to survive and yet small enough to provide Israel with security guarantees. [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak's proposal is a for a total division of the two states, political as well as economic. But," the editorial goes on, "it is difficult to predict whether such a state will be able to be self-sufficient." The paper concludes: "What is certain is that [the U.S.] president's presence in the Middle East peace process will continue to be necessary."

IRISH TIMES: The Middle East peace process is truly back on track

The Irish Times applauds the fact that the Oslo meeting means Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are "talking again." The paper says in its editorial: "The Middle East peace process is truly back on track as [Barak, Arafat and Clinton] meet in Oslo to honor the memory of [former Israeli prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated four years ago." It continues: "Their meeting today is expected to endorse the idea of reconvening an intensive session along the lines of the Camp David summit, which brought peace between Israel and Egypt [in 1978], this time to agree the substance and timing of next year's negotiations."

These talks, the Irish Times underlines, "are nothing if not ambitious, covering all the contentious and deeply divisive issues at stake between Israelis and Palestinians, and potentially leading directly into a more general regional peace negotiation." It adds: "Everything remains to be negotiated ... in a few intensive months if agreement is to be reached by this time next year. Few expect it can be done; but so much of the ground has been identified by now that it is not impossible."

The Irish Times sums up the big issues in the coming intensive phase of negotiations in these terms: "Large gaps remain between the parties on all the issues at stake, especially on the amount of land from which Israel will withdraw and how dependent a Palestinian state would be to determine its own destiny. Expectations about the return of [Palestinian] refugees will be extremely difficult to meet, while Jerusalem is a hugely contentious symbolic issue. In the wider regional setting," it concludes, "there is still a stand-off between Syria and Israel, which blocks progress on Lebanon."

BOSTON GLOBE: A negotiated peace agreement is no longer the mirage of visionaries

Commenting on the Oslo meeting, the Boston Globe today says that Middle East "issues of substance can no longer be postponed. Barak's [recent] commitment to a compressed calendar -- a framework for agreement by February and a final-status accord [within a year] -- compels the parties to clarify their positions now."

The editorial continues: "The contours of Israel's stance were described [yesterday] in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. The central point of an account leaked to the paper by the Barak government is that the framework agreement in February will authorize the Palestinians to establish an independent state before the signing of a final agreement." For the paper, "there is a certain irony in the rationale for this sequence, given the history of Israeli opposition to a sovereign state for Palestinians."

The Boston Globe explains the change by noting that, in its words, "if the [final Israeli-Palestinian] agreement is to prohibit the Palestinian state from forming alliances with other parties hostile to Israel, as Barak will insist, then the guarantee must be given by the new state, not by a precursor organization."

The paper goes on: "The negotiators are also talking about expanding Jerusalem to include Palestinian neighborhoods, making possible an undivided city that may nevertheless serve as capital for two separate states. Rabin's goal, a negotiated peace agreement, is no longer the mirage of visionaries."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Armenia's democratic institutions and traditions are probably strong enough to survive

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, correspondent Wolfgang Koydl comments on last week's assassination of several high Armenian officials, an act captured on video during a parliamentary session. He writes: "Armenians are used to murder and assassination as part and parcel of everyday politics. In the past 12 months alone, three public figures have been assassinated and a fourth politician survived with grave injuries. Even so," he adds, "the bloodshed that took place in the Armenian parliament ... went beyond anything that could have been imagined. With the prime minister and six parliamentarians dead ... Armenians are in a state of shock."

The commentary continues: "Armenia is in fact the poorhouse of the Caucasian states. It has hardly any raw materials and virtually all its money comes from the International Monetary Fund and the Armenian diaspora in the U.S., France, and Australia." It also notes that Armenia "cannot pay for energy supplies, so at night the whole country is plunged into darkness. Those who can emigrate do so, and pensions -- as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union -- are so meager that elderly people often live at near-starvation level."

Koydl then says: "Against this background ... Premier [Vazgen] Sarkissian seemed a logical target. Without a doubt, he was one of the most influential and wealthiest men in the desperately poor republic at the foot of Mount Ararat. What is more, he made no secret of his fondness for exercising his power -- and displaying it." The commentator says that Sarkissian -- a former defense minister -- was also influential within the country's security forces. That, he argues, "probably explains the ominous call from the armed forces that was broadcast on radio and television the day after his assassination. They demanded the resignation of [several high officials] whose negligence, they alleged, had been partly to blame for [Sarkissian's] death."

"This does not necessarily mean that a coup is in the making," concludes Koydl. "For all their weaknesses, Armenia's democratic institutions and traditions are probably strong enough to survive. Even so, President [Robert] Kocharian must take statements by the armed forces seriously -- after all, they are the heroes of the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan."

WASHINGTON POST: Rule of law in China can take you only so far

Under the ironic title "The Rule of Law," the Washington Post today writes of China's most recent crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement. In an editorial, the paper says: "China's communist leaders often insist that theirs is, in fact, a system of laws -- that human-rights activists who complain about a lack of democracy are just hung up on minor details, like elections. In the past week, events have proved the leaders absolutely right. When they found themselves without the laws they needed to vigorously persecute a peaceful meditation society, the party simply ordered up some new laws."

"Now," the editorial continues, "these [new laws] will be applied -- retroactively, of course -- in show trials that could lead to execution for the group's leaders. This is what the regime calls 'smashing them rigorously in accordance with the law.' By these standards, Stalin was a scrupulous observer of civil rights."

The Washington Post also says: "While the regime targets Falun Gong, it hasn't slowed in its pursuit of more traditional enemies. Last week, it put on trial four organizers of the China Democracy Party, whose crime is to call -- again, peacefully -- for a more open political system." The editorial goes on: "When one of the four ... tried to present a defense, court officials ripped his statement out of his hand and accused him of mouthing 'anti-government propaganda.' ... Rule of law [in China]," the paper concludes, "can take you only so far."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)