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Western Press Review: Balkan Syndrome, A Rising Euro And More Czech TV Comment

Prague, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentaries focus on a broad range of topics, including widespread concern that NATO soldiers may have been exposed to undue health risks in the Balkans because of the use of uranium-depleted munitions. Several soldiers in a number of NATO countries have recently died of leukemia, which some suspect may have a link to exposure to the ammo. The deaths have sparked calls for fuller investigations from European governments and international organizations. The papers also focus on prospects for the euro, Russia as a natural gas supplier and the ongoing crisis in Czech public television.


Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung waxes skeptical about reports linking weaponry hardened by depleted uranium with illness among some NATO soldiers. In an editorial, the paper asks: "Can one really assume that democratically elected governments would decide to use weapons that imperiled their own troops? Or that the military's commanders, who are regularly called to account for the slightest of lapses, exposed themselves and their subordinates to unreasonable risks?"

The FAZ says munitions hardened with depleted uranium have been in use for years and until now, "nobody has seriously considered that it might constitute a serious risk for people -- civilians or soldiers."

The paper calls for increased testing of German soldiers exposed to the weapons, but at the same time it warns against mass hysteria. The FAZ continues: "It is reasonable to suspect that opponents of western intervention in Kosovo are now pursuing the conflict by medical means with the purpose of winning the public opinion war after the event. And there is no specter better suited than uranium to create alarm because of the invisibility of the sinister 'radiation' hazard."


Another German paper, Die Welt, today is more sympathetic to claims that munitions incorporating depleted uranium might be to blame for recent incidences of leukemia among some NATO soldiers, including now at least one German soldier. In a commentary, Hans-Juergen Leersch writes that it's true that "soldiers are exposed to a special occupational risk: they must reckon with the fact that they may lose their lives." But Leersch says that doesn't apply to loss of life or health due to factors that are ignored or neglected. He writes "that's why reports of soldiers sick with leukemia must be taken seriously." He acknowledges it's not yet clear that depleted uranium is the cause of the sicknesses, but says German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping is well-advised to expand medical testing of German soldiers exposed to the weapons as the only way to achieve reliable results.


After all the economic gloom that has come out of the United States in recent days, the London-based Financial Times today strikes an optimistic tone about the coming year in Europe. In an editorial entitled "Euro Bounceback," the paper says one of the good things likely to come out of an economic slowdown in the U.S. would be a stronger euro.

"Euro strength looks assured. Economic growth in the U.S. will decline...this year and the country may even fall into a brief recession. The euro-zone, in contrast, is likely to suffer only a modest decline in growth, from somewhat over 3 per cent in 2000 to between 2.5 and 3 per cent this year. Recent data show that while there are weaknesses in the euro-zone economy, including slowing growth in Germany and bottlenecks in supply elsewhere, the overall picture is still fairly positive. Across the region, according to the European Commission's latest survey, confidence remains high."

The paper concedes this would be bad news for exporters, who would experience a loss in competitiveness as the exchange rate moves against them and also declining demand in the U.S., Asia and Latin America.

But, the Financial Times, goes on: "An appreciating exchange rate is good news for inflation. As imported goods get cheaper again, so price pressures in the euro-zone will abate. This disinflationary trend will be reinforced by the fall in oil prices and weaker global growth." And the paper says, if the inflation outlook becomes more benign, the central bank will be free to cut interest rates if growth appears to be stalling. The paper finishes: "A euro recovery may be one of the few good things to come out of a U.S. slowdown."


The Financial Times today also turns its attention to energy issues and questions whether Russia can be viewed as a reliable supplier of natural gas to Western Europe after it recently briefly shut off gas supplies to nearby Georgia.

The FT says: "Russia, the world's leading gas exporter with a quarter of all its reserves, should remember "the importance of reliability". In particular, Moscow should realize that its halt, albeit brief, in gas exports last week to its neighbor Georgia is bound to raise some questions in western Europe, which depends on Russia for 42 percent of its gas imports today and more in the future.

The FT continues: "For some time, Russia has been bullying other former members of the Soviet Union -- Ukraine and Moldova as well as Georgia -- over energy supplies." It says some of this bullying is justified, especially the case of Ukraine which has simply stolen some of the Russian gas crossing its territory.

"But," the paper says, "some of the motives...are highly questionable. Russia is clearly using energy as a lever to intimidate Georgia, where it has fomented secession and is still delaying the pull-out of Russian troops."

The FT notes in the 20 years that Russia has been supplying gas to Western Europe, it has shown "exemplary stability." The financial paper says that this is "a reputation Moscow should strive to maintain. This means treating all its customers properly and, above all, keeping politics out of gas."


The Irish Times, in an editorial today, professes admiration for Czechs and the way they've taken to the streets to protest what they see as increasing political manipulation in Czech public television.

The paper writes: "It has been made clear by recent events in Prague that citizens of the Czech Republic place a high value on media freedom. The appointment of Mr. Jiri Hodac as director general of the Czech state television service has raised the issue of political cronyism. Journalists have barricaded themselves into the Prague studios. More than 100,000 people have taken to the streets in protest and parliament has begun a process which should soon lead to Mr Hodac's removal from office."

The paper compares the situation in Prague to that in Western Europe, where it says political influence in state television is also not unknown. The paper says, though, that in many Western European countries the first reaction by the population would be apathy -- not activism.

In trying to explain why Czechs take media freedom more seriously than do citizens in other countries, the paper points to recent history, particularly the 1968 Prague Spring: "The people of the Czech Republic have a bitter historical experience in this sphere. They are more aware than most that creeping politicization of the media, particularly of television, needs constant vigilance. As the head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, Mr. Alexander Dubcek introduced a policy of media freedom which led to what became known as 'The Prague Spring.' Freedom of speech brought a feast of information to a people whose diet had previously been restricted to views approved by the Kremlin in Moscow."

The Irish Times reminds us the Prague Spring was crushed by tanks from the Soviet Union and its client states in August 1968, but the paper says the "people had tasted freedom, and recent events show that they still cherish it."

The editorial concludes: "Not for the first time in recent history have the Czech people set an example for the rest of the world. It is an example not only to be welcomed. It is to be admired."


But Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is less convinced the stakes today in Prague are as high as in 1968, or even that the flap over who will run Czech public television is really worth a demonstration at all.

Commentator Klaus-Peter Schwarz writes, "it has been a long time since any event in the Czech Republic has created such a furor as the current one surrounding the newly appointed director of Czech public television. And rarely has the outcry been so out of proportion to the event's insignificance as in this case."

Schwarz continues: "Poor 'Czech public television director' Jiri Hodac is neither the first television director in Europe to be closely tied to a political party nor the only one to be regarded as incompetent by journalists. Nevertheless, the impression is being made that nothing less than the maintenance of freedom and democracy is at stake here. Even the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have felt obliged to look into the matter."

But Schwarz says one small detail has been overlooked: the strike by television journalists, the occupation of the studios, the appeals and mass demonstrations are not directed against a totalitarian regime but against a decision that was made by democratically elected members of parliament in compliance with the law. That decision may be right or wrong, the motives underlying it may or may not have been clean. The process, however, was absolutely legal.

Schwarz writes it is surprising to find President Vaclav Havel justifying his sympathy for the television studio rebels with the argument that the appointment of Mr. Hodac was in accord merely with "the letter but not the spirit of the law." Schwarz asks: "Who is supposed to interpret the 'spirit' of the law? Surely not the president's office?"

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.