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Western Press Review: Kursk Farewell And Yugoslavia

Prague, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press concentrates today on assessing developments in Yugoslavia after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. But there is also one moving tribute to the Russian sailors who died two months ago when the Kursk submarine sank. The comment was occasioned by yesterday's revelation of a note by one of 23 crewmen who lived at least a few hours after the ship was stricken.


Let's begin with that tribute, entitled "Farewell," in Britain's Times newspaper. It says: "The mind cannot dwell for long on the horror. In pitch blackness, the young men, freezing and terrified, awaited inevitable death as they heard the water gushing through the tubes or sluicing under the buckled hatches of their stricken submarine. It might be a good two hours before the water filled the air pocket in the ninth section, where they had fled for safety after a catastrophic blast had sent the huge submarine roiling out of control to the bottom of the Barents Sea. One man had time to write a farewell note to his family. Others probably tried to comfort each other as they heard in the darkness the final struggles of their drowning comrades."

The paper says further: "All Russia is gripped again by grief and rage as it learns the details of how the 23 initial survivors of the explosion on the Kursk died. It is not only the lies and arrogance of an incompetent military establishment that have unleashed a new wave of public criticism," the editorial goes on. "It is the sense that for all the bravery of the young recruits proud to serve aboard the Navy's nuclear flagship, nothing could save them from the slipshod ways and cheapness of life that have been Russia's enduring tragedy."

The editorial also says that "bravery in the face of death inspires pity and terror in us all. It is a quality that strikes a special chord among Russians: Indeed, there is a word, 'proshchai' [farewell] that carries the overtones of tragedy and finality. Russians," it adds, "remember keenly the messages of the doomed: the poet [Vladimir] Mayakovsky's celebrated lament in the face of the growing [communist] repression that triggered his suicide, or the defiance carved into the bricks of the battered fortress at Brest in 1941 by a soldier unable to hold out against German guns any longer: 'I am dying, but I will not surrender.' It is a universal grief -- and one that now comes to us, devastatingly, from the depths of the Barents Sea."


Turning to Yugoslavia, an editorial in Spain's El Pais hails yesterday's entry of the country into the European Union-backed Balkan Stability Pact. Is says: "[The move] is a signal for the new Yugoslavia of the end of its international ostracism and the first toward it boarding the train of multilateral organizations based on democratic cooperation."

El Pais continues: "The real Serb transition [to democracy] and end of the Milosevic era can't really begin until the parliamentary elections set for December 23. Even so, the new government in Belgrade has taken a few steps in the right direction. The most important among," it says, "has been the establishment of an interim government bringing together the old opposition and the [Socialist] party dominated until now by Milosevic."

But the paper argues that new President Vojislav Kostunica has another possibility of, in its words, 'distancing himself from his sinister predecessor in a an immediate, concrete gesture." Kostunica, it notes, earlier this week publicly acknowledged Serb crimes in Kosovo [in an interview with U.S. television]. Now, the paper says, he "ought to amnesty some 1,000 ethnic Albanians held in Serb prisons for more than a year."


In a commentary for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Peter Muench writes of "De-Balkanizing the Balkans." He suggest that is not likely to happen soon, writing: "The big bully Slobodan Milosevic has finally been driven from the world stage. The end of this age of darkness has awakened big hopes all around: the Serbs are hoping for aid, foreign countries are hoping the region will become stable and prosperous. Viewed realistically, however, the dawning of the new era is fraught with too many euphoric expectations."

Muench doubts strongly that the Balkan Stability Pact will change much in the area. He writes: "In the 15 months it has been in effect, the stability pact has taught us two things. First, the West made promises it did not keep. The [pact's] cumbersome Brussels bureaucracy -- coupled with national narrow-mindedness -- resulted again and again in the failure of grandiose plans, whether from budgetary constraints or sudden lack of interest. [So] disappointment on the part of the recipient nations was pre-programmed. Second, it also became clear that the expectation level in the Balkan states was overblown. Renouncing the sword is simply not enough -- the plowshare must be taken up in its place."

He goes on: "The longed-for integration of the southeastern European nations is contingent upon a host of conditions. When all is said and done, what needs to be accomplished amounts to nothing less than de-Balkanizing the Balkans." That means, he says, "this region -- which has disintegrated into an almost chronic state of war -- must now muster the strength to cooperate [across borders]." But, he adds, "for the time being at least, any talk of cooperation is little more than a regional, reflexive response to the West's wishful thinking. In contrast, daily political reality remains mired in the burdens of the past."


In a commentary distributed by the Los Angels Times Syndicate, Natasa Kandic writes that there is still much "unfinished business" in Serbia. Kandic heads the Humanitarian Law Center, a human-rights and humanitarian organization working across borders in Yugoslavia. Before Milosevic's fall, she faced charges for publishing an article on the atrocities committed by the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo.

Now, after a visit to Belgrade, she writes: "Our priority is civilian oversight of the police. But for that, we must know what kind of police forces exist and what they did during the wars in neighboring Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo." She continues: "The menagerie of butchers includes: the Red Berets, Frankie's Men, the Legion, the Special Anti-Terrorist Units, the Secret Police, the Federal Police Brigade, the Special Police Units, convicts working for the police and Captain Dragan. They are thugs," she adds, "special units controlled by [Milosevic] and now by some members in the new government. The names of these formations can also be found on the roll of indictees of the [UN] war crimes tribunal in The Hague."

"Our priority," she says further, "is [also] a professional army, not generals who formed paramilitary units such as the VII battalion in Montenegro. Not generals who last August distributed the secret document POV No. 1037-1, partly written by Defense Minister General Dragoljub Ojdanic, an indicted war criminal. Naming the opposition 'NATO collaborators' and 'terrorists,' Ojdanic ordered army officers to vote for Milosevic."

Kandic then argues: "If Kostunica fails to work with The Hague, Serbia is also in immediate danger of becoming a sanctuary for war criminals. For years," she says, "we were at war with our neighbors. We left their countries devastated, and our population grew by the hundreds of thousands with refugees, displaced persons and returning fighters. It is a haven not only for Milosevic and his four closest comrades -- who were all indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide -- but also for thousands of others who committed atrocities against ethnic communities in neighboring countries." She says: "Montenegro has begun to cooperate with the tribunal, so our 'war heroes' won't be safe there. They will soon find Serbia the only safe place left."

"It would be best," Kandic continues, "for Kosovo Serbs if Kostunica and the government quickly began to cooperate with the UN administration in Kosovo. This, too, is a priority. It is the only way to deal effectively with the issue of about 3,500 missing persons on both sides." And she concludes: "We must come to terms with the crimes committed in our name. If Kostunica wants to fulfill his promise to make Serbia a 'normal place,' he must spearhead that process. For its part, the West should [insist] Serbia do the work necessary to rejoin the fellowship of states."


In Britain's Guardian daily, Martin Woollacott also discusses Serbia and Kosovo in his weekly commentary. He says that both the United States and Western Europe "notoriously mishandled the crisis in former Yugoslavia. But," he adds, "[they did] in the end adopt policies which halted the Serbian campaign in Bosnia and later forced a withdrawal from Kosovo, which in turn contributed to Milosevic's fall."

Woollacott cites a UN-sponsored report released this week by an independent international commission that charts, he says, "how Kosovo was allowed to fester to the point where Serbian suppression of rebellion provoked NATO intervention. [The report, he adds,] allows that this intervention was 'illegal but legitimate.' In its broader conclusions, it states in a measured way the need for early engagement in the kind of situations which could produce violations of human rights on a scale that may later give grounds for a humanitarian military intervention."

He comments: "What is striking about the Kosovo report -- like [many similar ones in the past -- is that for all its] criticism of the behavior of governments and international organizations, [it is essentially optimistic. Such reports] look to a managed world, in which most disasters are headed off by preventative action, and others are dealt with, when they have to be, by the judicious use of force."

"But," a skeptical Woollacott concludes, "whether the U.S. after Clinton, or a muddled European Union, uncertain of its own course and far from agreed on external policies, are in a position to learn the lessons laid out is another question."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego contributed to this report.)