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Western Press Review: From Russia To Serbia To Northern Ireland

Prague, 29 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our selection of subjects touched on by Western press commentary today and over the weekend ranges across the entire continent of Europe -- from Russia in the east through Serbia in the center to Northern Ireland in the west. There are comments both on Russia and, some days before President Bill Clinton's visit to Moscow, on U.S.-Russian relations. Analysts also look at the latest crackdown on the independent press in Serbia by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, and discuss the weekend's agreement by Ulster unionists to resume autonomy in Northern Ireland.


In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times found Russian President Vladimir Putin's new tax plan, in the paper's word, "promising." It wrote: "Though Russia's new president has yet to chart a clear course on most domestic fronts, he made clear last week that he intends to move aggressively to mend the economy, ending years of meandering policies. The Putin government," the editorial went on, "asked parliament to replace the country's progressive but largely dysfunctional personal income tax with a simple flat tax."

Putin, the paper argued, "is right that tax rates are too high. A destructive competition to raise revenue rages among Russia's local, regional and federal authorities. Indeed, local officials often help businesses hide their local tax payments so that local governments can avoid sharing the proceeds with Moscow as the law requires. Russia," the editorial states, "has created the worst of all tax worlds: high rates and little revenue."

The paper said further: "It will not be easy to make the flat tax and other reforms work. Corruption and bureaucratic incompetence will not disappear overnight. But Putin is starting his economic reform in the right place. If Russia can get its tax system in order and the Kremlin can begin to count on a steady source of income for government programs," the New York Times concluded, "the country can at last begin to deal with some of its chronic problems, including a failing health care system, erratic law enforcement and the poverty of millions of elderly citizens."


On Sunday,the Los Angeles Times wrote of what it called "missile insecurity," one of the chief contentious issues between Washington and Moscow today. The paper's editorial said: "High on President Clinton's agenda when he meets with President Putin in Moscow next weekend is a proposal to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty. It would allow the U.S. to deploy a national missile defense -- known often by its acronym NMD -- system designed to protect all 50 states against limited missile attacks."

The editorial argues that pushing ahead with NMD could mean scrapping the ABM treaty, inviting a new arms race, and souring relations with the U.S.' European allies, who see NMD as destabilizing. The paper then goes on to suggest that, in its words, "NMD could threaten rather than improve national security, especially if it leads China to expand its strategic missile force and develop countermeasures that it could sell to such states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. These are the very countries," it notes, "whose so far nonexistent intercontinental missiles NMD is supposed to deter."

"Moscow," the editorial says further "-- which retains thousands of nuclear warheads -- might be convinced that a missile defense system using no more than 250 interceptors wouldn't affect the strategic balance. But China, which has only 20 long-range and now largely obsolescent missiles, could see a security threat." But, it concludes, "what surely should be apparent is that the bigger the U.S. missile defense system, the less inclined Russia will be to downsize its nuclear stockpile. This supposed security enhancement could well leave the U.S. farless secure than it is now."


In a news analysis for the Washington Post today, correspondent Steven Mufson says that the idea that there are "rogue" states that threaten the U.S. is itself increasingly being questioned by U.S. and European security analysts and officials. He writes: "The existence of such a threat has become an article of faith, widely accepted by the Clinton administration and some of its Republican critics, but questioned by some policy experts here and by many abroad."

Mufson goes on: "When President Clinton visits Moscow next weekend for his first summit meeting with President Putin, rogue states will be the ghosts at the negotiating table. Fear of their still- theoretical capabilities has made winning Russia's agreement for a limited U.S. missile defense the Clinton administration's top priority in Russia policy, overshadowing the war in Chechnya, economic reform and future NATO expansion." He adds: "Critics of the theory of rogue states say the allegation that these countries are irrational or suicidal is more questionable. Their leaders appear to be very concerned about self-preservation, and the U.S. has successfully employed diplomatic as well as military initiatives to engage or contain them."

Mufson sums up: "Yet fear of rogue states remains widespread. Many policy-makers warn of letting concern about small rogue states prompt the shredding of major accords, like the ABM Treaty that the administration is trying to persuade Russia to amend. But national missile defense remains an alluring prospect for those worried about preserving America's latitude for action in a crisis, when a small country with nuclear missiles might threaten to use them."


Turning to events in Serbia, the Danish daily Politiken says today: "Serbia's free media are being assaulted on a daily basis by President Slobodan Milosevic, whose means of preserving the power are becoming increasingly dictatorial. But," the paper adds, Serbia's "relatively independent media continue doing their best to stand up to the propaganda put out by state-controlled organs."

"Still," the editorial goes on, "none of the independent media have much faith in the ability of Serbia's organized political opposition to win the increasingly aggravated internal conflict, in which Milosevic's desperate power plays are continually making economic conditions worse." Nor, the paper argues, is there must hope "that any outside help for the independent media is forthcoming."

"The West," it says, "has supported freedom of speech in Serbia -- but mostly with words and resolutions. True, it has helped set up some TV stations and radio stations and transmitters. Yet none of these have had much effect. To make things work, Serbian voters must be approached in a much more direct fashion by the West." The editorial sums up: "It remains unclear how long Milosevic will be able to stay in power. But the message from Serbia is nonetheless unequivocal: the fight is worth fighting, and it will be fought."


Britain's daily Guardian sees additional dangers in Yugoslavia today. The paper says: "The renewed fighting in the Presevo valley, in southern Serbia, between Yugoslav army units and ethnic Albanians is one of several recent reminders that the situation in the Balkans, nearly a year after the 'liberation' of Kosovo, remains volatile." The editorial lists other outstanding problems:

"The final status of Kosovo, a de facto UN-NATO protectorate but still sovereign Yugoslav territory, is nowhere near being resolved. In Serbia, the indicted war criminal Milosevic has been conducting a crackdown on what his regime describes as 'Western-backed terrorists.' This instability, which extends to Montenegro and is intensifying ahead of scheduled local elections which Milosevic's party is expected to lose, has been exacerbated by a spate of unexplained assassinations of Milosevic associates and the continuing economic dislocation caused by NATO bombing and Western sanctions."

The paper then hones in on Serbia: "The potentially explosive situation," it writes, "and its worrying implications for overall, European-led efforts to bring lasting political and economic stability to the Balkans, will be on the agenda in Moscow today when Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, and Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese prime minister whose country holds the EU presidency, are due to meet President Putin. Russia remains," it says, "deeply ambivalent about methods employed by the West to force democratic change in Serbia."

The Guardian concludes: "After their Moscow summit, Mr. Prodi and Mr. Guterres visit Washington on Wednesday to meet President Clinton. They will doubtless seek -- and receive -- assurances about the U.S.'s Balkan commitment. But, increasingly, a lame-duck Clinton is not in a position to deliver. Europe has to find a way to get out of this Russian-Chinese-American squeeze. The only person it helps is the deeply undeserving Slobodan Milosevic."

Finally, several papers today praise Saturday's accord by Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Party that will allow what is called "devolution" -- that is, the granting of autonomy -- to move forward in the province.


The Irish Times calls it "a good result for Trimble," recalling that it comes "two years and one week after the electorate -- North and South -- overwhelmingly ratified [the Belfast Agreement that provides for the province's autonomy]."

The editorial goes on to say: "With the path now cleared for the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement, it must be acknowledged that the British government's decision to suspend the Northern institutions last February has been, in some measure, vindicated. If the controversial suspension had not happened," the Irish Times sums up, "the IRA would not have come forward with its, Mr. Trimble would not have been in a position to go back to his party for endorsement, and the principle of guns-for-government would still be in deadlock. It is now imperative that all aspects of the Belfast Agreement are honored in the letter and the spirit."


In Norway, the daily Aftenposten writes in an editorial: "Northern Ireland begins a new chapter of its history today as its government is meeting for the first time since it was suspended by London in February. The meeting," it notes, "was made possible after Trimble on Saturday got the support he needed to conduct negotiations with what the Irish Protestants call their arch-enemy: the Catholic Sinn Fein [the IRA's political arm]. Still," the paper concludes, "there is continuing skepticism whether the Northern Ireland political process, now resuscitated, will bring its people closer to the long-lasting peace they have desired for so long."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)