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Western Press Review: Post-September Economic Issues, Putin's Russia, Elections In Kosovo

Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A survey of the Western press today features commentary on the European Central Bank's monetary policy; the World Trade Organization's meeting this week in Doha, Qatar; and Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Other issues include upcoming elections in Kosovo and Pakistan's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Hans Barbier says that pressure is mounting on the European Central Bank. "Will it continue to stall?" he asks. "Or will it fulfill expectations by lowering its leading interest rate this week?" He notes that the ECB has so far avoided lowering interest rates despite numerous calls for a cut to spur the economy since 11 September. Barbier says that monetary policy "was not conceived simply to ignite stock-market rallies. And active counter-cyclical intervention on a case-by-case basis cannot be recommended. [In] the extraordinary situation after 11 September, immediate action to stabilize the financial system might be deemed appropriate, but not changes in medium-term monetary policy."

Barbier says that the "explicit mission" of the ECB -- to assure price stability -- is now being challenged. Some have called for a steep reduction in the leading interest rate to stave off the possibility of deflation. He says that the ECB "ought to confront this issue publicly in order to illuminate discourse." How great is the threat of deflation? he asks. Would falling prices halt when inflation hits the 2 percent goal? The ECB, he concludes, should make these things clear.


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" says that the economic damage of the 11 September attacks "has galvanized efforts to launch a global trade round -- so much so that diplomats now think a deal can be done in Doha." This renewed momentum, it says, "is spurred mainly by fear. Proponents of a round argue that global negotiations would deter outbreaks of protectionism that would imperil the world trade system." The editorial says what it calls the "biggest potential prize" from new negotiations would be "the economic boost from removing trade barriers." The paper notes that hopes for progress center on three main areas -- agriculture, industrial tariffs, and services. But even if a trade round is launched, the editorial says that the many obstacles it would face make its success far from certain. If global negotiations do get under way, the paper writes, "launching the round may soon look like the easy part."


In "The New York Times," Michael Wines examines President Vladimir Putin's Russia. He says Putin has a virtually unchallenged grip on power and has initiated reforms of which past reformers "could only dream." Wines notes that Putin has managed to stabilize both the government and society, revive the economy, and institute changes in the pension system and property rights. But the means to these positive ends, Wines says, are another matter. Putin, he writes, "rose to power on a surge of nationalism inspired by a particularly brutal war in Chechnya, and [ran] a 1999 election campaign noted for its political toughness." Wines asks if Putin, "a former KGB officer whose credentials as a democrat have always been suspect, now holds such a grip on power that he can dispense even with political titans" -- most recently, Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, who is under federal investigation for corruption.

Wines goes on to note that "criticism of the government on the nation's three major television networks [has] been sharply muted in the last year, as two networks once controlled by Kremlin opponents have fallen under the government's sway -- the third is government-owned." Wines cites Michael McFaul, one of the leading Russia experts based in the U.S., as suggesting that Putin has both pro-Western and authoritarian traits, which may form a contradictory impression that is open to misinterpretation. But as McFaul puts it, "Still, the most troubling thing [is] that there are really no serious political opponents [to Putin]. [That] is a scary thing."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Stefan Ulrich considers the EU in light of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's now-notorious antiterrorism meeting on 4 November. Originally, Blair invited only two of his counterparts -- Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany. After some protest, an invitation was then hastily extended to other EU members.

Ulrich writes that, at first glance, the anger incited among the uninvited guests seems foolish. It stands to reason that Washington cannot wait for all EU members to come to an agreement on common defense and foreign policy. So understandably, those states showing a willingness to cooperate act first. Other countries, he says, are seen as "lightweights," considering the EU too cumbersome an organization for world maneuvers.

But he adds that although the concern of the excluded nations is exaggerated, it is not groundless. The question is whether the three major powers are going to turn into a "G-3" and ignore the EU Commission, Parliament, and Council. The more difficult it becomes to reach a consensus in an expanding EU, the more enticing the London-Paris-Berlin option may seem as a way of dealing with important matters. "But this would be fatal for European cohesion," Ulrich says. Too many countries would fall behind and a "union of three states" would not be conducive to maintaining the alliance the joint EU institutions envisaged.


A second editorial in the "Financial Times" says that Europe has, thus far, "presented a solid front in the U.S.-led campaign against international terrorism. The ambivalence displayed during the Gulf War a decade ago has disappeared. But as the military campaign moves up a gear, cracks are showing." The paper continues, saying some critics have charged that the Afghan crisis "has created a new division of Europe between countries that count -- Britain, France [and] Germany -- and countries that risk being marginalized," such as Spain and Italy, as well as Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands. This weekend's mini-summit hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- as well as one held in October by French President Jacques Chirac -- raised cries of elitism among the smaller EU members not invited to participate.

The U.S. has only increased these fears of favoritism, the editorial says, by being selective in accepting offers of military assistance. But, it adds, "pragmatists on both sides of the Atlantic applaud the present arrangements. The U.S. seeks legitimacy from Europe but picks its partners according to the task at hand. EU leaders decide a common policy in Brussels but action is devolved to European capitals." The trouble with this approach, the paper argues, is that it runs counter to the Maastricht Treaty idea of a common EU foreign and security policy, with all members acting in unison. "There are several reasons why the Maastricht blueprint needs revisiting," the paper says. But the editorial goes on to say, "Whatever the future power calculations, Blair and Chirac would be advised to treat the smaller European countries with a touch of more humility."


A commentary by Jean Piel in Belgium's "Le Soir" considers the 3 November release of Michel Peyrard, a journalist for "Paris Match," after 25 days of detention by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Peyrard was arrested on 9 0ctober after having secretly entered Afghanistan hidden under a burqa -- the women's garment mandated by the Taliban that completely covers the body. French authorities and the Reporters without Borders press-rights organization had argued for his release. Piel notes that Peyrard was accused of espionage, a crime punishable by death in Afghanistan.

Officially, Piel says, Peyrard was released because the Taliban discovered that he is indeed a journalist and not a spy. But Piel observes that the same has not held true for the Pakistani journalists (Irfan Qureshi and Mukkaram Khan) who were arrested with Peyrard while serving as interpreters. Piel says that other legitimate journalists are also still in detention, such as Daigen Yanagida of Japan, who was arrested by the Taliban two weeks ago. Piel quotes Peyrard as saying that the Taliban prisons were almost full -- many Afghans have also been arrested for plotting against the regime. Piel writes: "Any opposition able to form an alternative to the 'students of theology' [Taliban] would have been eliminated."


A commentary from the Stratfor intelligence service examines the declaration signed by the United Nations and Yugoslavia yesterday, calling it the UN's "most solid commitment since June 1999" to give the Serb minority autonomy and protection within Kosovo. In return, Stratfor writes, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has encouraged Kosovar Serbs to vote in elections on 17 November. Stratfor says the protocol is "a major win" for Yugoslavia. Belgrade, it notes, has resisted the possibility that ethnic Albanians would handle the administrative responsibilities for Kosovo. Serb opposition parties have criticized the upcoming elections as a step toward such a development.

The elections are part of a UN attempt to create an ethnically representative administration for the region. But Stratfor notes that without support from Belgrade and Kosovo's Serbs, the elections would accomplish little. Stratfor writes: "In return for encouraging Kosovar Serbs to participate in the elections, Yugoslavia has won a concession that sets the stage for the ethnic partitioning of Kosovo." Enforcing protections for ethnic Serbs, it says, "would require a Serb-run administration. If the United Nations is to arbitrate the privileges Yugoslavia has won for Kosovar Serbs, the region must be partitioned along ethnic lines."

But a UN-sponsored partition of the region, Stratfor says, "would set a troubling precedent in the Balkans. [Ethnic] partitioning could alter the balance of political and military forces in the region -- potentially emboldening aggressors on all sides of the ethnic divides -- and ultimately spell the failure of the entire Balkans peace process."


An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the tenuous alliance between the United States and Pakistan in the campaign against terrorism. In recent weeks, the stability of President Pervez Musharraf's regime and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal have been the subject of much international concern. The paper writes: "No Muslim political leader has risked as much for the United States as General Musharraf, and Washington has been right to reward him generously. Yet America's new embrace of Pakistan needs to be cautious, recognizing that many serious issues remain unaddressed. Islamabad has still not severed its ties to terrorist groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, its commitment to restraining future weapons development is uncertain and General Musharraf's own promises of restoring democracy are hedged with ambiguities." The paper suggests that the United States should support the Pakistani president while encouraging further policy changes. If Musharraf succeeds in disentangling Pakistan's military intelligence services "from the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Kashmiri terrorism, and limits foreign funding of violent Islamic extremist groups, Pakistan's chances for democratic development would be much improved," says the paper. It writes: "The United States should also make clear that it will not repeat its mistake of the early 1990s and disengage itself from Pakistan's problems after American military objectives in Afghanistan are achieved."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this press review.)