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Western Press Review: Russia, China, Yugoslavia

Prague, 26 January (RFE/RL) -- Much Western press commentary today deals with Russia, China, and the former Yugoslavia.


A news analysis from Strasbourg by Nicole Gauthier in the French daily Liberation describes as an "about face" last night's decision by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly to restore Moscow's voting rights in the body. Last April, the assembly suspended the Russian delegation's right to vote because of human rights violations in Chechnya.

Gautier recalls that the decision to suspend the voting rights was taken by the council's assembly in what she calls a gesture of "honor and credibility" for an institution that was established to promote human rights in Europe. She then says flatly: "'Honor' is clearly no longer in season."

Gauthier continues: "For some months now, the Parliamentary Assembly has looked for an opportunity to reverse its sanction. It's true that the assembly felt a little lonely since [it acted last year]. The Committee of Ministers [which represents all member states], the Council of Europe's real executive authority, had entirely ignored the assembly's request that it begin a process to suspend Russia from the council itself."


There are two comments today on Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin insider who was arrested in New York last week under an international warrant issued by Switzerland. The Wall Street Journal Europe writes in an editorial: "[President] Vladimir Putin spoke famously about creating a 'dictatorship of the law,' but as every Russian knows, the law in Russia is applied with a great deal of selectivity and high-level interpretation. So it is perhaps not surprising to hear [Russians suggest Borodin's arrest] was some sort of a U.S. political plot rather than a plain-vanilla legal matter."

The editorial goes on: "Even a cursory look at the Borodin case betrays the absurdity of that proposition. The Swiss prosecutor's office has wanted for some time to nab Mr. Borodin for questioning in connection with its investigation of a Swiss company called Mabatex, which received a lucrative contract from the Russian property office in the 1990s for Kremlin renovations. The Swiss," the paper says, "want to know whether there were possible kickbacks and money laundering involved. The U.S. has an extradition treaty with Switzerland."

The paper says further: "Bush administration officials quietly assured [Russians] present at inaugural activities [that] the Borodin arrest is purely a legal matter. That is as it should be. [The U.S.] legal system isn't perfect, but largely lives up to its claim to be blind. Close friends of Bill Clinton have gone to jail for crimes. [And] the ex-president himself opted to settle up last week rather than face prosecution for perjury."

The editorial concludes: "The day when the same independence can be shown in the Russian judiciary appears, sadly, to be a long ways off. If it ever arrives, we'll know that Russia has taken a vital step toward normalcy."


This week's issue of Britain's Economist titles its comment on the Borodin case "Insider inside [prison, that is]." The magazine writes: "As headaches go, this seems a pretty bad one. [President] Putin owes a lot to Pavel Borodin, an expensively dressed man who under President Boris Yeltsin used to run the Kremlin's business empire."

The commentary continues: "[To exert public pressure for Borodin's release] would be politically risky for Mr. Putin. Mr. Borodin was a central figure in the unpopular Yeltsin 'family' -- a circle of well-padded insiders who ran the country during Mr. Yeltsin's frequent indispositions. Mr. Borodin valued his business empire [at] several hundred thousand million dollars, and ran it in a highly personal style that most Russians deeply resented. Rallying to his defense," the magazine says, "would suggest that Mr. Putin. has yet to break his ties to the people who put him in power."

"Yet," the Economist adds, "leaving Mr. Borodin to face the Swiss request for his extradition that got him arrested is risky too. Switzerland wants him on money-laundering charges. Mr. Borodin knows a great deal, probably more than anybody else, about the murky financial dealings of the Kremlin in the Yeltsin years, for most of which Mr. Putin was working there as a junior, and then not-so-junior, official. If the tycoon decides to talk, his interrogators will need plenty of notebooks."


Turning to China, two U.S. dailies discuss its communist regime's treatment of the Falun Gong sect. The Los Angeles Times writes in an editorial: "The suicide attempts of five Chinese in Tiananmen Square [on 23 January] are a direct response to Beijing's brutal repression of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement over the last 18 months. The more Beijing tightens the screw," the paper says, "the greater resistance it will encounter. China's only choice, if it wants to prevent further escalation and gain acceptance by the international community, is to give its people greater freedom."

The editorial continues: "In Tuesday's protest, on the eve of the [Chinese new] year, five people said to be sect members set themselves on fire, [and] one of them died. It marked a dramatic shift in Falun Gong's largely peaceful campaign of civil disobedience and comes at a time when China is trying to head off condemnation by the UN Human Rights Commission and burnish its image abroad in the hope of enhancing its bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics."

The paper concludes: "The self-burning in Tiananmen Square was the most dramatic among hundreds of protests that members of Falun Gong have staged in recent months. Clearly, China's government cannot crush the movement by force. Rather it should ease its pressure, lift the ban and deal with the sect in a manner that eases tensions."


The Wall Street Journal Europe also discusses the woes of the Falun Gong, writing in its editorial: "The fundamental, human issue is the Chinese government's brutal campaign to wipe out [the sect] and the misery resulting from it. The government has stepped up its persecution in recent months, leaving hundreds if not thousands of Falun [Gong] members 'destitute.' Police have forced them from their homes, expelled them from their jobs and have a government-sanctioned carte blanche to beat and torture. An estimated 100 members have been beaten to death in police custody."

The editorial says further: "So these are people being driven to the brink. We may not agree with the method of the five who set themselves ablaze Tuesday. Even in a China without freedom, people still have free will. But given the government's brutalities, it's not so difficult to imagine why a few persons would have succumbed to despair. And that makes them deserving of our pity rather than our cynicism."


A Washington Post editorial today is titled simply, "Arrest Mr. Milosevic." The paper writes: "For the past three months, Western governments have been showering Yugoslavia's new leadership with favors, ranging from the lifting of all sanctions to admission to the United Nations to help in controlling a rogue Albanian guerrilla force. Not much has been asked in return," it adds, "and not much probing has been done to determine just how far President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic are prepared to go in leading their country out of authoritarian nationalism and toward a unifying and democratic Europe."

The editorial goes on: "Now, however, there has been a clear litmus test: The United Nations' chief war crimes prosecutor for the Balkans visited Belgrade this week to ask that the new government arrest former President Slobodan Milosevic and a number of his top aides and deliver them for trial at The Hague."

But, the paper says, "the response to prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, though not an outright rebuff, showed that Yugoslavia's would-be reformers have not yet grasped the magnitude of what they must do to normalize their country -- or perhaps do not yet have the strength to do it. Mr. Djindjic and several of his ministers temporized with Ms. Del Ponte, saying they were prepared to arrest Mr. Milosevic but wanted to try him in Yugoslavia. [What] many Serbs -- and in particular Mr. Kostunica -- do not seem to grasp is that real change in Yugoslavia cannot be sustained without the extradition of Mr. Milosevic and other war criminals."

The paper concludes: "For the moment, [Slobodan] Milosevic is still living in a spacious government villa in Belgrade, protected by government security forces and free to practice politics. Whatever the plans of the new government for negotiating with the war crimes tribunal, such treatment should not go on. Even if he is not yet put on a plane to The Hague, Mr. Milosevic and his indicted accomplices should be arrested."