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Western Press Review: In The U.S It's Thanksgiving; Elsewhere Tension

By Don Hill, Brent McCann, and Alexis Papasotiriou

Prague, 25 November 1999 (RFE/RL) - A number of commentaries in the U.S. press concentrate on the American Thanksgiving holiday today, while German press commentary ranges over a variety of issues.


In the Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen finds a connection between the American holiday and an awards ceremony two days earlier in New York honoring heroic journalists of 1999. He says a Pakistani newspaper editor said something that, in Cohen's words, "We need to hear." Cohen quotes the editor as saying this: "You Americans do not know fear."

The Washington Post columnist goes on, in his own phrasing: "Thank God for that, I say to myself. Thank God for America. How did this miracle happen? I know the facts, but still I cannot explain it. I go back, time after time, to the Founding Fathers and wonder about these men. Who can explain so much genius in one place at one time? Their Constitution has endured. Their First Amendment still stuns. Give it a moment's thought and you cannot stop thinking about it."

Cohen recounts a touching moment at the awards ceremony. As he describes it: "Back at the Waldorf -- at the dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists -- Baton Haxhiu of Kosovo is accepting his award. We see a video of how he kept his newspaper going during the war, the threats against his life, the unbelievable working conditions. He is standing before us now, jarring in his tux. 'Nobody's perfect,' he says in heavily accented English. 'Except God is perfect. And America is almost perfect.'"

While Cohen focuses on freedom from fear, his newspaper, the Washington Post, aims its editorial at freedom from want. The editorial says this: "Freedom from want is no abstraction. It is an up-close and personal experience, best appreciated by those who engage in the deliberate mental exercise of stepping back, pausing and giving thanks."

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared the first U.S. Thanksgiving holiday when the states of the union were embroiled in the pain and privation of civil war. As the editorial puts it: "That nearly all of us [give thanks] on Thanksgiving is partly the gift of President Lincoln. In the anything-but-prosperous days of 1863, he proclaimed a holiday to focus on 'these bounties, that are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.' The phrasing suggests an odd truth that has kept the holiday fresh all the years since: Hard as it is to remember to count blessings in the midst of privation, it's amid the roar of prosperity that you really need -- and welcome -- a reminding nudge."


Elsewhere in the West, commentators find cause more for anxiety than thanks. Giorgos Kapopoulos commented yesterday in the Greek daily "Kathimerini" on the warmth with which Bulgarians greeted U.S. President Bill Clinton when he visited this week. Kapopoulos says that the greeting showed, as he put it, "the great popularity of the only superpower in the former Soviet sphere of influence."

The writer continued: "This can be explained partly by the fact that Western Europe made it plain that for now its doors are closed, so that for East European countries, accession to NATO has become the first step in the difficult road to full integration with the European Union. [But] the roots of pro-American sentiment in Eastern Europe lie deeper. They are related to the historical bitterness of the peoples of these countries over their subjugation to the guardianship of the USSR after World War Two. Now they prefer to belong to the sphere of influence of distant America, rather than to that of a European country."

Even so, the columnist observes, East Europeans also are coming to recognize that there are distinct limits on US ability to intervene in and finance Eastern Europe's reconstruction.


The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung"'s Alexander Hagelueken writes today in a commentary that the next round of talks of the World Trade Organization already are snagged, several days before the principals gather. Hagelueken says the negotiators were unable to agree on a draft agenda.

But the writer says he perceives a chance for progress anyway. In his words: "As [the gathering] is about free trade, maybe [the difficulties are] not so bad after all. Strongly worded threats, long nights at the negotiating table, and missed flights have always been part of the stock in trade when countries bargained over cuts in protectionism."

In the words of the commentary: "Everyone will have to make concessions. Past rounds of trade talks have shown that everyone benefits from free trade."


Americans traditionally celebrate their Thanksgiving with a family feast, but, as the New York Times points out in an editorial, there is no set time for the feast, no set way to express the thanks, not even a set menu -- except for the native fowl, the turkey. A form for the celebration seems to be worked out anew each year, the New York Times says. As the editorial puts it: "Every November, Thanksgiving is reinvented in just this manner. We pull it out of thin air. We watch it gather in front of us and then, because a feeling so rich and supple cannot be sustained for long, we watch it vanish until it is time to reinvent the day all over again next year."

"New York Times" political columnist William Safire says that in Russia, President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have hatched an ingenious scheme for regaining popularity among their people before the coming elections. The plan is to, as Safire describes it, "to use foreign funds to build up the army and -- under the pretext of anti-terrorism -- exterminate the militant Chechens."

Safire goes on with this: "So far, it's working. The Russian generals, humiliated by the independence forces five years ago, are using new tactics that inflict civilian casualties with missiles and artillery. Controlled media show victories, not 200,000 pitiful Chechen refugees or Russian body bags. The Yeltsin-Putin party's popularity is soaring."

Safire says the United States should react on moral grounds by ostracizing Russia selectively, to, in his words, "provide disincentives to despotism." One significant step, the columnist says, would be to follow the advice of former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and bring back the Group of Seven.

Safire explains: "Because we wanted to encourage Russia to embrace democratic capitalism, the world's leading industrial nations invited Russia in -- thereby becoming the Group of Eight. This built up Yeltsin's prestige. But Russia does not rate membership on the basis of its economy -- only on the basis of its potential as a civilized society."

The columnist goes on: "By virtue of its savage attack on civilians in Chechnya, the Yeltsin-Putin regime does not deserve membership in that informal league of the advanced industrial democracies. Only when it stops killing innocent people for the purpose of improving poll ratings and remaining in power should that militarist regime be invited to a summit meeting of the Group of Seven."

Safire concludes with this: "The West cannot intervene militarily. But we're not helpless."