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Western Press Review: WTO Winds Up, Weak Euro, Chechnya

Prague, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Much of Western press commentary remains fixed on the World Trade Organization's (WTO) ministerial meeting in the northwestern U.S. city of Seattle, which is due to conclude later today. But there is also some comment on the weakening value of the new European Union common currency, the euro, as well an editorial on Russia's alleged violations of human rights in its military campaign in Chechnya.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: A restriction on free trade between individuals is a restriction of choice, and of freedom

Most assessments of the WTO gathering focus at least much on the violent street protests that accompanied it as on the meeting itself. A commentary in the "Wall Street Journal Europe," for example, is titled "Protests May Wreck Seattle." Its author, environmental expert Julian Morris, has been in Seattle throughout the week.

He writes: "Many of the aggressive anti-trade protesters I saw in downtown Seattle looked more like trade-union members. ... Even those truly idealistic youths I've seen running around in a rage here are being cynically manipulated by men with less ethereal considerations, namely protectionism and power."

Morris continues: "The protectionists, including a large contingent from [the U.S.'s largest trade union,] the AFL-CIO, want to restrict trade because it transfers blue-collar jobs to developing countries. The competitive advantage of advanced nations is obviously in white-collar industries, but people with those jobs don't join labor unions."

For Morris, "the demonstrators' claim that trade reduces consumer choice is simply daft." He concludes: "You don't need ... to be one of the thousands of millions who suffered the bitter experience of communism this century to know that central planning is the road to serfdom, not freedom. A restriction on free and voluntary trade between individuals is by definition a restriction of choice, and of freedom."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Protesters need to be taken seriously

A somewhat different point of view is expressed by Nikolaus Piper in a commentary in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." He says that the "demonstrators should be taken seriously, even though they're on the wrong track."

The protesters, Piper writes, "have taken on an enemy that isn't there. They claim the WTO has opened the starting gates in ... a race in which cheap competition will force lower wages, deteriorating working conditions and reduced environmental protection. [But] the fact is, that race never happened. On average, everyone has profited from free trade." Still, he continues, the "frightened and uncertain" protesters need to be taken seriously because they have "no legitimate forum to vent their worries."

Piper suggests that the fears of the protesters could be allayed by making the WTO's decision-making process more open, and by creating or strengthening world bodies that deal with issues such as labor and the environment.

USA TODAY: Real problems require realistic solutions

The daily "USA Today" is of a similar mind. Its editorial warns that "smashing windows won't free the oppressed." But it goes on to say that, "despite the rioting, concerns about increasingly global trade and investment ... can not be brushed aside."

The paper defends globalization of trade, one of the protesters' principal targets: "Globalization," it says, "has [actually] helped [the activists'] causes. ... Information has gone global alongside goods and money, casting light upon previously obscure Third World abuses, some of them centuries old. ... Thanks to globalization, [too,] U.S. companies already appoint activists to internal committees and report on labor standards and [environmental] clean-ups at their annual shareholder meetings."

The editorial concludes: "Real problems require realistic solutions. It's no wonder the protesters [attacked] the local Starbucks [coffee shop]. They came looking for an enemy, and he's not at the WTO."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: The current generation of leaders is incapable of making an effort

Britain's "Daily Telegraph" challenges the idea behind the "Fair Trade, Not Free Trade" banners carried by many protesters in Seattle. The paper's editorial says the slogan "is code for [trade] quotas, tariffs and prohibitions." It says free trade is fair.

The editorial goes on to say: "Free trade does not happen of its own accord. The natural condition of the world is protectionist. ... Trade barriers are rarely reduced without [an enormous] effort by far-sighted leaders, acting in concert, at grand [meetings] like this one in Seattle. [But] so far, it looks as if the current generation of leaders is incapable of making such an effort."

The paper says it is "lamentable that the governments of the world's richest countries cannot find the political will ... to uphold the system that made them so rich. The best that can now be expected from this miserable [meeting] is a fudge that does no damage."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: This is a political distortion of free trade

Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff expresses a dissenting view about this week's events in Seattle. He writes: "[The Seattle protests represent a reaction] against what widely and accurately has become seen as a program to transfer power over society from governments [and national enterprises] to international corporations, most but by no means all of them [U.S.]"

Some trade agreements that have been proposed in the past, he says, would have created pressure to "reduce labor, welfare and environmental standards."

Pfaff says further: "The rebellion against the [Seattle negotiations] is not ... directed against market capitalism as such, but against that peculiarly ugly mutation of capitalism that has taken place during the past [20 years]." He defines that "new capitalism [as combining] indifference toward employee welfare and community interest [with excessive] executive compensation."

The commentator adds: "When international deregulation is sought by investment interests domiciled in such highly regulated countries as the U.S. ... they are acting on a politically inspired [conservative ideology], hostile to all government regulation. This," he concludes, "is not the ideology of free trade" but rather a political distortion of it.

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: The euro exchange rate has come to symbolize a clash between two forms of capitalism

Commentators also discuss the decreasing value of the euro. Since the EU common currency was introduced at the beginning of the year, it has lost some 15 percent against the U.S. dollar, and late yesterday it dipped below one dollar for the first time.

In a news analysis for the "International Herald Tribune", John Schmid says: "In economic terms, whether the euro changes hands for l.01 dollars or 99 cents makes virtually no difference. But in terms of public psychology, the exchange rate has come to symbolize a clash between two forms of capitalism: the state-heavy Continental approach and the free-market, deregulated [U.S.] approach."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: The drop in the euro against the dollar is a sign of market mistrust

Schmid notes a front-page article in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" earlier this week that said: "The drop in the euro against the dollar is a sign of [currency] market mistrust in the strength and dynamism of the economy that the euro represents." Parity with the dollar, he also notes, is "an embarrassment to [EU] finance ministers and central bankers who argued for months that the euro was bound to appreciate."

ECONOMIST: The EU's European Central Bank was right to do nothing

An editorial in the current issue [dated Dec. 4] of Britain's weekly "Economist" says that the most likely explanation of the euro's fall is "cyclical, not structural [as some critics maintain]." The editorial goes on: "Although [Western] Europe's growth has recovered, [the U.S.'s] has spurted even more, to an astonishing 5.5 percent annual rate in [this year's] third quarter." And, it adds, "the gap between [U.S.] and euro interest rates may widen this year -- making the euro relatively less attractive."

"Is this a problem?" the magazine asks. Not really, it replies: "A weak euro may dent the pride of some [EU] politicians, but it will do little economic harm. A fall in the euro will give only a modest upward nudge to inflation; and it will help lift growth by making [EU] exports more competitive."

So, the magazine concludes, the EU's European Central Bank was "therefore right to do nothing [about the weakening euro]. In any case," it asks, "what could it do? Foreign exchange intervention on its own rarely succeeds. And [other means] could be highly counterproductive."

DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALSACE: Russia's war in Chechnya is sheer butchery

An editorial in the French provincial daily "Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace" underlines the importance of yesterday's comments on the war in Chechnya by Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human-rights commissioner of the Council of Europe. Gil-Robles -- who recently visited the North Caucasus, including a tour of refugee camps in Chechnya -- said conditions in the camps were inhuman and that the flight of more than 200,000 Chechens from the republic was an obvious reflection of human-rights violations.

The paper's editorial, signed by Jean-Claude Kiefer, says this is the "first time that a multilateral European organization has dared publicly to say what everyone knows: [Russia's] war in Chechnya is sheer butchery." Kiefer writes further: "Since October, the Russian army has demonstrated -- in its manner-- that it has learned the lessons of the [last spring's] war in Kosovo: destroy as much as possible, force populations to flee under an old method inherited both from the tsars and from communism -- terror."

Kiefer adds: "Russia's methods [in Chechnya] are beyond comprehension. [Their forces] kill and massacre the innocent as well as the guilty and make no distinction between civilians and terrorists. The battle for [the Chechen capital] Grozny more and more resembles the battle for Berlin in 1945: A steamroller moves forward and crushes a people [the Chechens] already 'punished' by Stalin in 1942." It's time, the editorial concludes, for Europe's intellectuals as well as governments to speak up as Gil-Robles did.