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Western Press Review: Sierra Leone Crisis; Putin; Euro

Prague, 9 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The escalating crisis in the West African nation of Sierra Leone -- where rebels are holding 500 United Nations peacekeepers hostage -- dominates Western press commentary today. There is also continuing comment about the challenges facing Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, and about the future of the European Union's common currency, the euro.

NEW YORK TIMES: Let the world really enforce the peace

On the drama in Sierra Leone, author Michael Maren writes in The New York Times that the effort to intervene in Sierra Leone's civil war by sending UN peacekeepers last year "was doomed from the start." The mission, he argues in a commentary, "was the product of wishful thinking on the part of Western countries, which have the world's best financed, armed and trained armies, but thought they could dispatch their commitment to peace in Africa by hiring under-prepared third world soldiers and putting them in blue helmets."

Maren says that the UN soldiers -- most of whom come from Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya -- are outnumbered, ill-equipped and poorly trained. In his words, they are "in all ways no match for the hardened rebels they are being asked to police."

He concludes that if the UN is serious about keeping the peace in Sierra Leone, it must send what he calls "significant numbers" of troops from developed nations immediately: "Without a full commitment from the West, the United Nations has no authority. Combatants see the policing force for what it is, a ragtag collection of third world armies thrown at a problem." He ends with this: "If the world thinks Sierra Leone is important, let the world really enforce the peace. If not, the message will be clear. The West doesn't care."

CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Peacekeeping is failing because there is no peace to keep

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune takes quite a different view. The paper writes that "peacekeeping is failing [in Sierra Leone] because there is no peace to keep and, on the part of at least one key actor, [rebel leader Foday Sankoh,] no disposition to make genuine peace." What's more, the paper says, Africa has no military alliance such as NATO to back up the peacekeepers: "To send lightly armed, poorly organized and ambiguously commissioned UN peacekeepers into such a situation is to ask for just the sort of thing that now has happened," the Tribune concludes. "To persist in such a mission in the face of what has happened is to commit folly -- or worse."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The international community should cut off the diamond trade

Writing in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Michael Bitala also argues against reinforcing the UN force in Sierra Leone. Instead, he says, the international community should cut off the diamond trade with Sierra Leone, thereby ending the rebels' main source of income. He writes: "The West watched passively for years while the [rebel Revolutionary United Front, or RUF] hacked arms and legs off civilians, raping and murdering as it pursued its goal of controlling the country's rich diamond mines. The RUF sold the diamonds it got in Europe and America, using the money to buy more weapons."

Bitala concludes that making a greater effort to fight the illegal export of diamonds and gold, -- in his phrase -- "would probably be more effective than sending peacekeepers. It would," he says, "cut down the money the warring factions have to spend on weapons and ammunition."

IRISH TIMES: There is little evidence that the deprivation of human rights creates a climate in which economies prosper

Now that Vladimir Putin has been sworn in as Russia's president, several papers assess the prospects for his country's future. The Irish Times warns against giving Putin too much authority. It notes that during his inaugural address on Sunday, Putin said his main aim is "to make Russia a free, prosperous, strong and civilized society."

While wishing him well in his task, the paper's editorial argues that Putin must tread carefully in reaching his goal: "There is a body of opinion which suggests that perhaps the most important element in the equation -- freedom -- can be sacrificed in order to achieve prosperity and strength." But, it adds, "the first domino to fall under such a course of action would be the aspiration of building a civilized society. The others could quickly follow."

The Irish Times concludes: "There is little evidence that the deprivation of human rights creates a climate in which economies prosper. For every authoritarian state that flourishes there are many others which languish in deepest poverty."

NEW YORK TIMES: Mr. Putin's promises should not become an excuse for drawing all power back into the hands of the state

The New York Times writes in the same vein. The paper's editorial says: "Mr. Putin -- who spent most of his career working for the KGB and its successor security organization -- may be tempted to exercise the near-dictatorial powers that come with the Russian presidency." But, it argues, what Russia needs, is "constant, effective leadership, not a modern variation of authoritarian command." The paper sums up: "Mr. Putin's promise to rebuild a strong central government should not become an excuse for drawing all power back into the hands of the state."

POLITIKEN: A strong man in Russia is often one who suppresses the people

In Denmark, the daily Politiken has this to say: "The new president has begun his term with a crime, [the war in Chechnya,] which the world has had to swallow only because Russia is so large. If Putin's [secret-service] background is indicative, there is nothing to suggest that he will behave differently in the future."

The paper argues: "There is no question that Russia needs a strong hand to lead it through the difficult economic reforms -- such as land-ownership reform -- that have yet to begin." But, it goes on, "the problem is that a strong man in Russia is often [one] who suppresses the people instead of respecting their rights. Regrettably," it concludes, "in the new Russia something as basic as equality before the law has never been enforced -- least of all in the past few years, when the so-called oligarchs have controlled too much of the country's life."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The euro-zone has only gained from the euro's weakness

The question of what to do about the European Union's single currency also elicits some press comment today. Some analysts conclude that even though one euro is now worth less than 90 U.S. cents in the 11 countries that make up the euro-zone, the best course is to do nothing. Thus, Britain's Financial Times comments in an editorial: "The euro-zone's finance ministers were right on Monday to play down the talk of intervention in the currency markets."

The paper argues that the EU's European Central Bank -- which oversees the currency -- may need to take action to increase the euro's value sometime in the future. But, it says, intervention is not yet desirable: "The weak euro is supporting economic growth, and is not threatening the outlook for inflation. Arguments in favor of intervention appear to be based more on a misplaced sense of pride than on economics."

The editorial adds that while "intervention is a plausible course of action," it should be "held in reserve against the possibility that the weak euro might become an economic liability. So far," it sums up, "in spite of all the very public angst, the euro-zone has only gained from the euro's weakness."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: The policy should be benign neglect of the euro's external value

The chief economist of the Dresdner Bank Group, Klaus Friedrich, agrees. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Friedrich argues that the European Central Bank should ignore fluctuations in the euro's value against currencies outside the euro-zone. He says: "Much of the weak-euro hysteria stems from outdated attitudes."

Friedrich writes that in the past -- when many euro-zone countries imported most of their goods -- a weak currency would have caused inflation because imported goods would have cost more. But he says a weak euro won't cause inflation these days, because countries that use the currency import only about 11 percent of their goods.

With that in mind, he says, "the policy should be benign neglect of the euro's external value unless clear and present inflationary danger from devaluation is demonstrated." Friedrich concludes: "Since virtually all euro-area inflation forecasts for this year and next remain under 2 percent, we are not importing inflation through the euro and should therefore get on with our internal [EU] agenda."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)