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Western Press Review: Stock Market, Russian Debt, Agricultural Crises

Prague, 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today runs the gamut of the week's chief new stories, from the stock-market plunge on Wall Street to the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease from Britain to France. Other subjects treated are Russia's fascination with spies and unwillingness to pay its foreign debt.


A "New York Times" editorial addresses the United States' "moment of economic suspense" in the wake of Wall Street's dramatic plunge to bear-market territory (a market characterized by falling prices for securities) on Monday (12 March). The challenge now, it says, is preventing the economy -- now showing signs of slowing despite healthy unemployment, inflation, and productivity figures -- from lapsing into a recession. The paper says: "The Federal Reserve Board (U.S. central bank) must [do] its part by further dropping interest rates to encourage spending. It is important, too, for President [George W.] Bush to quit talking down the economy in order to build Congressional and public support for his tax cut." It adds: "Public confidence needs to be restored in the fundamental soundness of the economy, lest consumers' concerns become self-fulfilling."


A commentary in the "New York Times" says that sooner or later, the West will be forced to renegotiate Russia's $48 billion debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations or risk Russian default. Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Celeste Wallander of the Council on Foreign Relations say, however, that the West can get something in return: a reduction in Russia's ability "to control its neighbors." They write: "Over the past five years, economic pressure, not military dominance or internal subversion, has become the most important source of Russian regional power. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, in particular, have run up enormous unpaid debts to Russia, mostly for gas supplies."

Lieven and Wallander go on to say: "Russia has no right to expect generosity from the West while taking a ruthless line toward its own debtors. The United States and its European partners should therefore offer to forgive Russia all or part of its debt, while demanding that in return Russia act similarly toward the debts of its neighbors."


An editorial in the "Washington Post" says Russia's stepped-up vigilance against espionage would seem to indicate what the paper calls an "epidemic" of treasonous spying by Russian citizens. It quotes a Russian Federal Security Service report as saying it was tracking no fewer than 350 Russians working for foreign intelligence agencies, and says: "Many Russians are alarmed by this news, but it's not because of the presumed loss of state secrets. What is really scary about [President Vladimir] Putin's espionage campaign is that the people on trial are distinguished mainstream academics, researchers, journalists and diplomats -- and the charges against them are transparently trumped up."

The editorial cites the case of Valentin Moiseev, a career diplomat who has been imprisoned since July 1998, when he was charged with spying for South Korea -- based on the evidence of a speech that Moiseev had delivered publicly. It says: "The signal of Russia's spy trials is that once again the Kremlin leadership is inclining toward rule by means of secret police, rather than by parliament, elections or law."


Commentator Michael Kelly says in the "Washington Post" that regardless of how critics rule on Bill Clinton's foreign policy performance, the end result is the same: "President Bush faces a world where all sorts of bandages are falling off and all sorts of bills are coming due. In Israel, the Balkans, North Korea, Colombia, Africa, Russia and the Taiwan Strait, the new administration must deal with a series of crises put off and now returning." Kelly also cites Russia and Iran's agreement this week to resume military and atomic-energy cooperation as an additional policy headache. He writes: "The president who must pick up the detritus of [Clinton's] delayed realities [that is, Bush] has so far displayed a distinct lack of interest in adventuring abroad. His administration has displayed internal disagreement amid overall confusion of purpose. Someone needs to get a grip."


The "International Herald Tribune" carries a commentary that examines what its writer says is an impending world food crisis. Scientist Robert Goodman writes that the population in underdeveloped nations is poised "to rise from 4,000 million to 7,000 million in a single generation. No one has a clue about how these people will be fed." Goodman argues that the West should invest not in emergency aid to developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but in giving them the education to make their own decisions about the agricultural technology needed for their particular region. He writes: "Since 1960, agriculture has performed a small miracle. For the first time in human history, increasing food production came not primarily from using more land for crops but from advances in science. Any future increases in production will likewise depend upon wise investments in science."


A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial says yesterday's announcement that Britain's outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease has made the much-dreaded leap to continental Europe is "bound to further stigmatize Britain, also blamed for mad cow disease, as a cesspool of pestilence." More broadly, the paper adds, it is likely to make a scapegoat of the global marketplace. It says: "One apparent downside of increased mobility for people, goods and capital is that microbes -- far more than asylum-seekers -- hitch free rides. [Concern] is appropriate, hysteria counterproductive. The human race and its domestic stock have weathered many a plague and still come out the other end, hardier and more numerous for their heartache. This, too, shall pass."


In a commentary in "Business Week" magazine, staffer Kerry Capell writes: "There's another kind of damage affecting Europe's body politic -- not quite as visible, certainly, as the funeral pyres of animal carcasses popping up across Europe, but harmful nonetheless. It's the subtle destruction done to Europe's idealistic insistence that it can solve its common problems together."

Capell says that the angry dialogue between Britain and France over the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease has only fueled the fires of "Euro-skeptics" who don't want Britain to join the EU monetary union, and adds that EU candidates Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia "hysterically" banned EU livestock imports even before hoof-and-mouth made the jump to France. Capell quotes a French international relations official as saying: "'Never before have Europeans been more dependent upon one another, and never before have we distrusted one another more."


On the occasion of Britain's "National No-Smoking Day" today, Tom Utley comments in the "Daily Telegraph" that the government's attempt to stamp out smoking while raising national revenues with higher tobacco taxes has failed on both counts. Utley says the number of smokers in Britain is on the rise for the first time in 25 years while government tobacco revenues have decreased. He writes: "The reason for this [is] the great boom in tobacco smuggling. [Tobacco officials] estimate that no U.K. tax is paid on as many as a third of all cigarettes now smoked in the United Kingdom. [This] is hardly surprising, when a popular brand retailing at [the equivalent of U.S. $6.25] here at home can be bought for only [U.S. $2.60] over the North Sea in Belgium, or [$2] in Spain."


Former U.S. television news correspondent Richard Hottelet says in the "Christian Science Monitor" that the United Nations must not bow to demands by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to lift economic sanctions and drop weapons inspections. He writes that what Saddam means by ending UN sanctions is abandoning altogether the escrow system that prevents him from having easy access to revenues earned from Iraq's legal oil sales. He says Saddam, fully in control of the money, "would, without a doubt, use it massively to rearm. Hussein is not Hussein without the weapons to dominate the Persian Gulf and its oil resources."

Hottelet says further that the U.S. must be cautious in drafting a new strategy that will not ostracize countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran "[that] all have long been parties to smuggling Iraq's oil, which gives Hussein more than $1 billion a year. [The] smuggling also doesn't displease those Western nations that see it as increasing the oil supply and helping hold down the price."


Finally, an editorial in the "Irish Times" says there is room for "cautious optimism" in the south Balkans. The paper says the significance of this week's NATO-brokered cease-fire agreement between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and the Serbian government in Belgrade is that "it could draw the more extreme nationalists into political dialogue with Belgrade and head off the potential destabilization of Macedonia." It adds: "Another encouraging development was the decision of Blagoje Simic, former mayor of Bosanski Samac in Bosnia, to surrender voluntarily to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. [His] decision has led to speculation that the new government led by President Vojislav Kostunica may be ready to soften its opposition to active co-operation with the court."

The editorial concludes: "One way or another all concerned in the region are having to come to terms with the fact that Kostunica's government has fundamentally changed its politics, even if too little has as yet been transformed on the ground for its peoples."