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1999 In Review: Celebrations Usher In The New Millennium

Around the world people are preparing for one of the biggest celebrations in modern western history, the dawn of a new millennium, to be observed when the chimes of midnight on December 31 mark the New Year -- 2000. In this report, RFE/RL London correspondent Ben Partridge looks at what to expect from the festivities.

London, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A scattering of tropical Pacific islands will be the first territories on Earth to observe the moment that, nominally, and depending on cultural beliefs, marks the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.

The following 24 hours will see street celebrations in thousands of cities and locations across the world -- from the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, Japan; to the Eiffel Tower in Paris; to Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro; to Times Square in downtown New York.

Egypt will stage a laser show at the Great Pyramids, climaxing with the lowering by a helicopter of a golden structure on top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, symbolizing the birth of the first day.

One of the largest parties will be in London, site of the former Royal Observatory at Greenwich, a suburb on the south bank of the Thames from which time is measured all over the globe.

Peruvians will perform offerings to the moon at an Inca stone temple at Cuzco; Romanians will stage a medieval ball at Bran Castle, home of Vlad the Impaler; and New Zealanders will light "a beacon of hope", the first of such beacon fires around the world.

New York, typically, will seek to outdo the rest of the world by staging a 24-hour party. "Times Square 2000" will broadcast images on five huge screens in the center of the city of how the arrival of the third millennium is greeted in Asia, Africa, and Europe. A worldwide TV feed will relay 24 celebrations as they happen at 24 locations.

Revelers are heading for the tiny Pacific island state of Kirabati which, in 1995, controversially shifted the international dateline to include its easternmost islands, meaning it will be the first place, in terms of longitude, to witness the first sunrise of the New Year.

A few wealthy celebrants have joined together to hire supersonic Concorde jetliners which will spend the millennial week chasing time zones and visiting capital cities around the world.

In France, some revelers will transport themselves 300 years back in time to dine at a period supper at Versailles in court costumes with an actor playing the Sun King, Louis the Fourteenth. In Germany, many will attend a gala evening in the rebuilt Reichstag, symbol of both 20th century tragedy and the resurgence of democratic values.

In Britain, party-goers will throng the Millennium Dome, a huge exhibition center on the River Thames, with a floor area the size of 13 soccer pitches. Critics, however, cite it as an of gigantomania, and wasted public funds.

Of course, for countries outside the traditional Christian world -- such as China, and Islamic countries, many with their own calendars, and comprising much of the world's population -- the millennium is something of a non-event.

Global enthusiasm is undimmed by the fact the millennium does not begin, strictly, until Jan. 1, 2001. Steve Dick, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., points out that, according to the Gregorian calendar, the start of millennium is 2001, and any other interpretation is nothing but "wishful thinking."

Why is this? The concept of zero was unknown to Dionysius, the 6th century scholar who first tied the western calendar to the birth of Christ. So, the first millennium began with the year 1 Anno Domini, the second on January 1, 1001, and the third millennium begins at midnight on December 31, 2000.

Still, President Bill Clinton will go ahead with millennial celebrations at the White House, on grounds that, while the "calendarists" are technically correct, by common consent, January 1, 2000, is the magic day. Anyway, some theologians say the most likely birth date of Christ was actually AD 10, showing the pitfalls of adopting a too-purist position.

For Christians, a new millennium is an occasion for meditation on the horrors of the outgoing century -- of mechanized and nuclear war, of the gulag, of Auschwitz -- and on the hope the 21st century will usher in a more humane and civilized age. A leading Anglican, Robert Horne, tells RFE/RL he hopes for a revival of traditional values:

"Given that the history of the 20th century has been major conflict, conflagration, the two major world wars, the totalitarian societies that have involved great hardship and death to so many people, one would hope that the 21st century might indeed lead to a revival of Christian values, as I like to think of it, and that we may all live together in peace and harmony, and a certain love and respect for one's neighbor. That's the least that any Christian can hope for of the new century, and the millennium."

At sensitive political locations over the world, security services are braced for millennial protests by publicity-seeking terrorist groups. One analyst says, "since terrorism can be defined as political theater, the impact of millennial terrorism would be immense." Some of the tightest security is in Israel, where security services worry about the danger of fanatical groups carrying out bizarre interpretations of biblical prophecies of the apocalypse. Surveillance is tight at Temple Mount in Jerusalem where Judaism's Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and which is the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines.

More prosaically, police around the world fear that emergency medical services will be hard-pressed to cope with injuries from drunken reveling during the millennial parties. London police expect hospital admissions to be four times the usual rate.

One worst-case scenario is a major accident -- or accidents -- caused by the Y2K bug, which could happen if older computers malfunction by misreading the year 2000 as 1900. In the run-up to the millennium, newspapers have been full of scare stories of planes falling out of the sky, lifts stalling or traffic lights failing. Some predictions say the computer bug could cause a world recession if computer crashes damage confidence in financial institutions.

Far-fetched? Some psychologists link Y2K hysteria with a phenomenon they call millennial anxiety. They say a similar phenomenon was present in the last years of the 19th century when people feared the advent of a new century, afraid that they would be entering into a new crisis of civilization.

Then, people worried about the future of the human race, the apocalyptic possibilities of science, or a crisis in faith. What, if anything, has changed? Today's worries are remarkably similar. People fret about the population explosion, accelerating technology and science, the impact of globalisation and the decline of traditional values.

John Owen-Davies, a disaster relief consultant and a member of a World Bank committee to promote humanitarian values, says the world in the next millennium will struggle to cope with population growth and poverty:

"I think the outlook is not good. Recent figures I've seen show that the world population by 2015 is going to be something like 7.5 billion, of which nearly two billion are going to be below the poverty line and are not able to get above the poverty line."

While an affluent minority will mark the millennium by climbing high mountains, diving deep oceans, or dancing under the pyramids, a majority will likely keep the century-change in perspective. Albert Einstein expressed his own famous reluctance to think about the future, saying it will come "soon enough anyway".