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Western Press Review: The EU's Feira Summit, Putin's Problems

Prague, 21 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our selection of Western press commentary today focuses on two quite different subjects. They are the European Union's summit in Portugal earlier this week (June 19-20) and the problems facing Vladimir Putin after six weeks in office as Russia's elected president.


"What," asks the Wall Street Journal Europe, "is one to make of a two-day EU summit at which 45,000 things are decided upon?" The paper's editorial lists a host of what it considers mostly minuscule results reached at the meeting in Feira in northern Portugal. Then it says: "Past EU summits have generally accomplished One Big Thing. At Helsinki in December, Turkey was finally admitted as a candidate for EU membership. At Lisbon in March, EU leaders agreed on a sensible, integrated approach to help revitalize the European economy. [Feira,] by contrast, was a mostly forgettable affair -- with two noteworthy exceptions."

The first exception, the paper goes on, was Greece's adoption of the euro, the common EU currency. "This," it says, "should be good for Greece [and] its effects on the [now 12-nation] eurozone are likely to be benign, as Greece's economy, though small, is doing passably well." But the editorial finds, in its words, "far more important [the] summit's near-success in lifting the veil on secret bank accounts [in the EU]. Portuguese Prime Minister and EU President Antonio Guterres underlined the importance he attached to this measure, saying: 'It was absolutely essential to European credibility.'"

The editorial also notes that among "the 45,000 news flashes coming from Feira, there was one saying: 'EU leaders welcome economic policy guidelines designed to maintain growth and stability. The strategy focuses on employment, the knowledge economy and preparing for aging populations.' Great stuff," it comments with some irony. "What a pity this item got lost amid all the summit clutter."


Two British newspapers also assess the accord on banking secrecy reached at Feira after Austria withdrew its objections. Both describe the achievement as a British diplomatic triumph. Britain's Times daily writes: "[Chancellor of the Exchequer -- that is, finance minister] Gordon Brown has emerged with a highly personal triumph from a summit which was, in its hypocritical contempt for the democratic rights of another EU member state, a repellent spectacle."

The editorial continues: "Austria's deeply reluctant assent to the eventual jettisoning of its banking secrecy laws afforded an occasion for the 14 other governments to drop sanctions, which they should never have imposed, on a country whose only crime is to have formed a government of which the others disapprove but which is indisputably lawfully constituted. The sanctions may be minor," the paper goes on, "but the issue of principle -- the assumed right of other EU governments to sit in judgment on the choice of a country's voters in free and fair elections -- is anything but minor."


In its editorial, the Financial Times writes: "On one important issue that has plagued the EU for a dozen years, the [summit] did more than just mark time. [Its] leaders have finally reached agreement on how to bring cross-border investment income within the net of their tax authorities."

The paper says that "the problem goes back to 1988, when EU states laid a foundation stone of their single market by agreeing to remove all capital controls. [Later, there was] pressure for an EU-wide withholding tax on non-residents' investment income, [but] Britain rightly argued that a withholding tax was far too blunt an instrument to deal with the tax evasion issue."

"But sometimes," the editorial says further, "it is not enough to have common sense on one's side. It is therefore a coup for Gordon Brown to have turned a position in which he was in a minority of one last year into a unanimous agreement along the lines of his counter-proposal for an exchange of information among fiscal authorities. Angry at EU political sanctions," it adds, "Austria nearly frustrated the deal, but eventually fell into line."


In Denmark, the daily Information notes that the outgoing Portuguese EU presidency yesterday, in its words, "dismissed any relation between Austria's unexpected agreement to scrap its banking secrecy laws -- as had long been asked by the EU -- and negotiations within the union to scrap the sanctions against Austria." But the paper warns: "The very fact that the two cases have been linked by the press is worrying. The [apparent] bargain struck at Feira between Austria and the rest of the EU shows that the noble principles that stood behind the decision earlier this year to impose sanctions against Vienna are not so holy and unchangeable after all."

The editorial continues: "History has shown us that sanctions rarely work in one direction only. It is not Austria alone that has been embarrassed by the sanctions against it, but also the 14 other EU member-states." It concludes: "At Feira, the EU leaders showed condescension toward Austria's obvious desire to compromise. Too bad if the same thing happens in the autumn, when a new EU treaty must be negotiated."


Business Central Europe -- a monthly published by Britain's Economist group -- today issued a highly skeptical commentary on the EU's planned rapid expansion to the East by Peter O'Donnell. He writes: "There are so many unanswered questions at the heart of the EU enlargement process that there is now a real risk it will falter. While NATO hints that the likes of Estonia and Slovakia might be allowed to join the alliance soon, Central Europe's other post-communist dream of rapid EU membership looks increasingly distant."

The commentary goes on: "The official EU messages about enlargement are all optimistic. [Enlargement] Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has said he sees new members joining by 2005. Nicole Fontaine, president of the European Parliament, says she hopes some countries will join by [2004]." And it adds: "Officially, Central Europe's front-runners are even more optimistic, saying they still hope to join in 2003. But privately they admit that's probably impossible. The negotiators still haven't even opened talks on the most difficult topics, the EU still doesn't have enough information about how the candidates are doing, and it hasn't even agreed on a system for assessing their progress."

"France," O'Donnell notes, "takes over the EU presidency on July 1, and will be in the EU chair as the critical decisions over enlargement are made. [French] Prime Minister Lionel Jospin," he says, has so far kept all talk of an accession calendar at arm's length [and stressed] the risks of going too fast. And if Austria," O'Donnell concludes, "remains isolated and decides to throw its weight around, it could refuse to ratify the internal reforms vital for EU enlargement, holding the entire process to ransom."


Turning to Russia, in a news analysis for the Washington Post, Moscow correspondent David Hoffman says this: "After barely six weeks in office, President Vladimir Putin has come to the end of his honeymoon with Russian political and business leaders -- many of whom are denouncing presidential actions that have antagonized regional governors, the news media and foreign investors. The jailing last week of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky under circumstances that have not been fully explained," Hoffman continues, "appears to have opened a sluice of criticism toward the new president -- criticism centered around charges that the promise of the Putin administration has been marred by ineptness and wholesale blundering."

The analysis continues: "The outpouring of disapproval comes amid early signs of a power struggle among several factions vying for control of the Kremlin apparatus -- and for Putin's favor. One group," Hoffman says, "known as 'the family,' includes the coterie of aides and financiers who served Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and arranged for Putin's succession. Another group that has gained influence lately includes the security services, which count Putin as one of their own."

According to Hoffman, too, "Putin's official visits to Spain and Germany last week, [which were] intended as early overtures to Western Europe, were completely overshadowed at home by embarrassing questions about who ordered the arrest of Gusinsky -- whose news outlets have been critical of the Kremlin -- and why. Putin," the analyst points out, "said at first he did not know, then said he could not reach the prosecutor involved in the case by phone, and by week's end was rattling off details about Gusinsky's finances that suggested he had been fully informed on the matter."


In the Wall Street Journal Europe, a commentary by Leon Aron, a U.S. specialist on Russian affairs, says that Gusinsky's arrest "ought to prompt both the Russian public and [Russian State] Duma deputies to take another hard look at the package of laws submitted by Putin last month to Russia's parliament." The laws, says Aron, "would give Mr. Putin the right to dismiss elected regional governors, and even to dissolve local legislative bodies if they are deemed to [violate] federal laws or the constitution. [They threaten Russia's] imperfect but real federalism as well as its democracy, [and would] also jeopardize its territorial integrity. Mr. Putin must either abandon [or radically modify them] before they have a chance to wreak their havoc."

Another reason, the analyst says, "[for rejecting] the proposed new laws is that they would be redundant. Many local legislatures," he notes, "already have the right to impeach governors. In the past few years, increasingly independent Russian courts have ruled against local executives on numerous occasions."

Aron sums up: "At the most recent U.S.-Russian summit in Moscow, Mr. Putin characterized American efforts to amend the [Anti-Ballistic-Missile] Treaty as 'a cure that is worse than the disease.' [That] is precisely what the new laws are as well. [Let] us hope he realizes that this latest attempt at paternalism from Moscow will spell nothing but disaster for Russia."


In the Los Angeles Times, New York-based Russian analyst Nina Khrushcheva says that "Putin has posed as a great supporter of Russian culture in all its aspects: film, literature, music, architecture, science. [But] mass media, because of its political usefulness, now seems exempted from these tender concerns."

"For Russians," she goes on, "Gusinsky's arrest incites a sinister sense of deja vu. Stalin also posed as a best friend of Soviet linguists, athletes, children and soldiers, but most of all as the friend of writers, composers, poets and artists -- even as he kept an iron grip on newspapers and broadcasters. Stalin's friendship, of course, sent [poet Osip] Mandelstam to his grave, and [writer Boris] Pasternak, [composer Dmitri] Shostakovich, and [writer] Mikhail Bulgakov all found themselves isolated."

Khrushcheva says further: "Putin's new dictatorship of law also seeks to play the culture card of his law-and-order predecessors. [The] point is to atomize and isolate. Great voices can speak, but these voices must be singular." She concludes: "The chorus of opinion that mass media outlets like those controlled by Gusinsky offers, it seems, must be overseen, monitored and, if necessary, controlled when they get too far out of line, as Kremlin power brokers seem to believe Gusinsky has been."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen also contributed to this report.)