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Western Press Review: From Yugoslavia's Past To Syria's Future

Prague, 16 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentary is spread broadly today over issues ranging from Yugoslavia's recent past to Syria's future under its new leader.


German commentator Peter Muench, writing from Munich in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, says there is cause for concern in Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica's meeting Saturday with his predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic. Some members of Kostunica's 18-group coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, expressed unhappiness today with both the Milosevic meeting and Kostunica's announced intent to snub Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the UN's Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, when she visits Serbia a week from today (23 January).

Muench writes: "The ghoulish aspect of the [Milosevic] meeting is that Kostunica himself summoned the ghost." The writer adds: "Now, a subject that was absolutely unthinkable weeks ago finally has been broached by Yugoslav Justice Minister Momcilo Grubas: Milosevic's extradition to The Hague. The majority, however, led by the uncertain Kostunica, are likely to insist on a trial at home."

Muench goes on to say that Milosevic committed so many and such egregious crimes in Serbia that there's plenty to convict him for there, but that this would miss much of the point. He writes: "A trial in Serbia would leave many of the most important topics -- in Western eyes -- untouched. Serbs may be keen to avoid reminding themselves of these injustices because, far from stemming from the actions of any one individual, blame can be apportioned to many."


The New York Times in an editorial concurs with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung writer that trying Milosevic in Belgrade does raise problems, but the U.S. paper reaches an entirely different conclusion. Its editorial argues: "The trial [in Serbia] could help calm the desire for revenge on the part of Mr. Milosevic's victims, which would further the cause of Balkan reconciliation. If done fairly, a trial in Belgrade has several advantages." The paper then cites them: "The court would have credibility among Serbs, and they would watch more closely than if Mr. Milosevic were tried in The Hague. They would learn more about the crimes committed in their name, which might help to dispel the myth of victimization that has been so corrosive in Serbia. Serbs suffered terribly under the rule of Mr. Milosevic. But they ought to recognize that the people of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo suffered far more."


The International Herald Tribune today carries an essay by Britain's Russell Johnston, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Johnson argues that Milosevic should be made to face trial by an international tribunal as would any other person indicted for war crimes. Under the headline "Depleted NATO Ethics," he lists a number of examples of what he considers NATO missteps and insensitivities and goes on to say: "Last spring, The Hague [tribunal] examined allegations of NATO misconduct and found no grounds for criminal prosecution. This does not mean that nobody should be held politically responsible for blunders that may have taken place."

Johnston also writes that the West's errors are all the more reason for it to insist that Milosevic not receive special treatment. He says: "If the international community yields to requests for special treatment of Serbian war criminals, and thus accepts the notion of Serbs being not only the first but the only victims of Mr. Milosevic, aggressive Serbian nationalism will again have a chance to flourish, and the Balkans will remain a very dangerous place. With its military intervention," he concludes, "the international community has taken upon itself a huge responsibility. Now it has to live up to it."


In the 19th century, jingoists were defined as adherents of a movement advocating "arrogantly nationalist belligerence" toward Russia. The expression since has softened to mean exaggerated patriotism. Britain's Times daily today carries a staff-written commentary urging a return to jingoism in the form of the U.S.-proposed national missile defense shield. Writer Michael Gove says, "When the word first emerged, it encapsulated the essence of prudent foreign policy." The new jingoists, Gove writes, President-elect George W. Bush in the United States and British Conservative leader William Hague don't want to fight but -- "by jingo" -- they stand ready to fight if they have to. The commentator says: "New shields, must be fashioned. And a willingness to cross words with the most lethal force available must be shown."


Writing in the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Joachin Kaepner says that the case of a Greek beaten by neo-Nazis last week in the Bavarian capital "exploded the false belief held by many West Germans that right-wing violence is something which happens [only] over there." Right-wing extremism, Kaepner argues, is a "pan-German problem." But there is a difference, he adds. In eastern Germany, xenophobia is imbedded in the culture while, he says, "in western Germany, skinheads and their associates represent an anti-social fringe group."


Britain's Financial Times says in an editorial that the European Union should publicly condemn Iran's jailing of seven intellectuals "for nothing more than attending an international conference in Berlin on Iranian reform." The editorial says: "The imposition of harsh jail sentences on seven intellectuals in Iran at the weekend marks a low point for hopes of change in that country. These were blatantly political sentences and they cannot pass without clear condemnation from the outside world."


The Wall Street Journal Europe today cites what it says was a useful result of just such an outside intervention. The editorial says that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority responded to an EU press release and a Scandinavian statesman's phone call by promising future Palestinian "collaborators [with Israel] amnesty if they turn themselves in." The editorial says: "It took one phone call from the Swedish prime minister to change Palestine Administration policy for the better. As we review the history of past Palestine Administration crimes, we can only wonder why such calls weren't made sooner."


In the Financial Times as well, analyst Roula Khalaf says subtle changes have occurred in Syria since President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father last year. The cabinet is the same, Khalaf writes, "many of its members still speak with the same hesitant language about reforms [and] they also suggest there can be no break with the past. Yet," he argues, "the mood has changed in Damascus."

Khalaf then cites the evidence, writing: "After 30 years of repressive rule, civil society is beginning to re-emerge and take advantage of Mr. Assad's promise of modernization. A Syrian human rights league that was crushed a decade ago has reappeared and now regularly issues public statements. 'Forums' bring together businessmen, intellectuals and professionals. Their public meetings are tolerated even though they are officially banned under the emergency laws."

He adds: "Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and arbitrary detentions curtailed. Intellectuals are speaking out -- 99 of them signed a petition late last year calling for wide-ranging political reforms including an end to the state of emergency. [And] signatures are being collected for another statement of protest."