Prague, 25 July 2000 (RFE/RL) - Our selection of Western press commentary today concentrates on two different subjects. They are, first, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's apparent attempt to ensure himself up to two more four-year terms as the country's leader and, second, new assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin after his appearance at last weekend's summit meeting in Okinawa of the world's seven leading industrial powers and Russia.
Denmark's Politiken daily comments in an editorial on the Yugoslav parliament's endorsement yesterday of Milosevic's electoral changes, which will allow him to be elected by popular balloting by one-half of all votes cast. It writes: "Milosevic's regime is not just about to put Serbia's political opposition on the wrong side of the law. It is also on the way of becoming independent of the wishes of its own voters. The new elections draft bill stipulates that the president could be elected into office even though more than 50 percent of the voters boycott the ballot."
The editorial goes on: "The leadership in Montenegro will surely resist the kind of parliamentary and presidential elections parodying common parliamentary practices that the new regulations will undoubtedly trigger." It adds: "Many Serbian voters are likely to follow suit."
The paper says: "In addition, a new anti-terrorist law, which will soon be adopted, will in effect outlaw the opposition. The regime has branded Otpor -- the opposition group it fears most -- as terrorist, and wants to prosecute its members as terrorists." It argues further: "The massive purges of independent judges that Belgrade is currently conducting will surely make this an easy task."
"A Kafkaesque play is underway in Serbia," the Danish paper concludes. "The ... regime is changing the laws in such a fashion that its own ideas become laws. Milosevic is about to turn Serbia into a banana republic. The tragic mistake was its choice of influencing developments in Serbia by sanctions and isolation instead of stretching out a helping hand to its people."
"President for Life" is how the Irish Times entitles its editorial on Milosevic's maneuvering to extend his grip on power in Yugoslavia. The paper writes: "On the surface, the electoral changes seem eminently sensible. The presidency of Yugoslavia will, in theory, be determined in the same manner as the presidency of Ireland. There are, however, differences which are subtle and potentially of an overwhelmingly anti-democratic nature."
The paper continues: "The parliamentary majority in Belgrade has been put together in order to ensure that his self-styled Socialist Party and its allies have an impregnable majority. "Moreover," the editorial adds, "the opposition is disorganized, fragmented and in some cases unsavory. The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Mr. Zoran Djindjic, has had ties with the outlawed Bosnian Serb leader, Mr. Radovan Karadzic, while the head of the Serbian Renewal Movement, Mr. Vuk Draskovic, has been erratic and unreliable to the extent that members of his own party would push for a reduction of the powers of the presidency in the extremely unlikely event of his being elected to that position."
The paper concludes: "Mr. Milosevic, like Mr. Karadzic, has been indicted on charges of war crimes. His strongest suit in avoiding extradition to face charges in The Hague is to remain as President with the immunity the office provides."
Christian Science Monitor:
In the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor, analyst Christopher Walker discusses the possibility of democratic values entrenching themselves in the Balkans. He writes: "A clash of cultures threatens to hold back democratic development in the Balkans. But it's not what you might think."
Walker argues: "Though ethnic and nationalist tensions remain a grave problem in many parts of former Yugoslavia, it is the ruinous mix of isolation, dependency, and criminality causing the region's undoing. While no one imagined setting things right in this part of Europe would be quick or easy," he adds, "the long-term implications of cultures of corruption and criminality entrenching themselves should be of serious concern to North Americans and Europeans who have invested so much to bring stability to the Balkans."
The commentary goes on: "Organized crime has been a persistent problem throughout the southern Balkans, not to mention the powerful rackets and gangs that operate virtually unmolested in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Macedonia. With all of its imperfections, the reconstruction process is under way in Bosnia and Kosovo, and there are signs of progress. But in Serbia, any such reconstruction effort is on hold until President Slobodan Milosevic is no longer on the scene."
The commentator sums up: "The fact is that an anchoring of democratic values in the Balkans will not happen if the international community decides to skip the unglamorous, but essential work needed to stem corruption and crime. To do so would allow far too much of the territory of the former Yugoslavia to carry a shameful legacy of impunity into the future."
The Western press is taking another look at Russian President Vladimir Putin after his appearance at last weekend's summit in Okinawa of the group of seven leading industrial powers and Russia.
In a commentary for Germany's Die Welt daily, Manfred Quiring writes from Moscow that Putin "crowned his four short months in office with a dazzling display of flexible determination, affability and statesmanship in his first appearance at a gathering attended by several world leaders."
The commentary continues: "Russians savored the news that Putin had become the 'star' of the summit and proved himself to be a team player with his newly cooled attitude toward Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. His performance on Okinawa," it adds, "has brought Putin -- a former Russian intelligence agency officer -- out from the shadow of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who always had problems finding the happy medium between forging new bonds with the West and effectively representing Russian interests. More than once, Yeltsin was known to slip into bluster and bombast."
According to Quiring, "Putin has opted to take a more conciliatory tack and dump old ballast -- like Milosevic, for instance -- overboard. With the help of a good team of foreign-policy advisers, Putin even managed to put U.S. President Bill Clinton on the back foot over his controversial National Missile Defense system that Russia opposes and many Europeans view skeptically."
He sums up: "Four months of Putin-watching tell us that for the new Russian leader, an authoritarian style of government is as necessary as a pragmatic meeting of minds with the West. And to top it all, many Russian hearts swelled with pride when they saw their 47-year-old president, who has a black belt in judo, also receiving the ultimate karate honor -- a ninth-degree black belt from the master of one of the major styles of the martial art in Okinawa."
A less positive view of Putin's performance in Okinawa is provided in an editorial in The Washington Times. The paper writes: "Mr. Putin has found a way to make Russia a player on the global stage. By meeting with China's and North Korea's leaders right before arriving in Okinawa for the summit, Mr. Putin was able to make a dramatic entrance." It adds: "Many heads of state were eager to speak to the Russian president to gain insights on China and the reclusive North Korean leader. By using Russia's eclectic connections, Mr. Putin is becoming a kind of power broker to rogue states."
The editorial continues: "On Wednesday (19 July), Mr. Putin announced that North Korea would abandon its missile program if only the West would supply the Asian country with rockets to explore space. Since these rockets would use similar technology as missiles that deploy nuclear, biological and conventional warheads, some experts wondered if the dry Mr. Putin was making an attempt at deadpan humor."
"But," the paper argues, "Mr. Putin wasn't joking. The Russian president is posing as a mediator for peace, but his efforts are disingenuous, and transparently so. Giving North Korea advanced rocket capabilities would only serve to intensify tensions on the Korean peninsula. By downplaying the threat that North Korea poses, Mr. Putin is also trying to undermine U.S. efforts to build a defensive shield to guard against a missile or nuclear attack. Mr. Putin fears Russia's geopolitical stature would be severely undermined if the United States were successful in developing this technology -- and he is right."
The editorial goes on to say: "In other words, Mr. Putin is seeking to undercut U.S. power by building informal alliances with some undistinguished company and blocking U.S. plans to build a national missile defense." It concludes: "He is not doing his country any good this way. Far better were it for his people, if Mr. Putin would instead concentrate on the arduous task of rebuilding his country's economy. The Russians deserve as much."
Wall Street Journal:
Finally, the Wall Street Journal Europe carries a commentary by columnist George Melloan on Putin's attitudes toward the law and the press. Melloan writes: "In his state of the nation speech early this month, Putin declared that, 'without truly free media, Russian democracy will simply not survive.' No doubt the president was expressing a genuine belief that springs from the intellectual processes of his mind," the commentator adds. "But it is not clear that his emotional commitment is as strong as his words imply. Otherwise," he asks, "how can you explain some of the nasty tactics his government has been employing lately against his critics, for example the harassment of Media-MOST tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky and environmental whistle-blower Alexander Nikitin?"
Melloan then tries to explain Putin's comments, writing: "Maybe Russian prosecutors simply have become over-zealous under the new presidency, going all out to defend it against critics without consulting the free press champion in the Kremlin. Or maybe Mr. Putin, trained in the arts of duplicity at the KGB -- one of the best schools available -- reflexively says one thing while doing quite another."
He continues: "Putin noted in his speech that 'censorship and interference in the activities of the media are prohibited by law.' In that sense, the new Russia is not much different from the U.S. But governments," Melloan notes, "do not always obey their own laws, another area where certain similarities exist between the two nations. Russia's defect," he maintains, "is that it has yet to build a popular tradition in support of press freedom and it is not likely to do so until an overwhelming number of Russian voters come to trust the press more than they trust the government. Or, in other words, more than not at all."
(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)