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Western Press Review: The Balkan Euro-Zone, Chechnya, And German Elections

Prague, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western media today looks at a variety of topics, including the Balkan "euro-zone," choosing a challenger in upcoming German elections, and socialist thinking in the Balkans. Russia's latest military assault in Chechnya, launched in late December, is also the subject of discussion, as is the ongoing U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.


An analysis in this weeks' "The Economist" looks at what it calls the "Balkan euro-zone." While most European states had to pass stringent tests of economic integrity in order to take part in the initial currency switch, "The Economist" says two "backdoor entrants" -- Montenegro and Kosovo -- are also taking part. Both run on a primarily cash economy, the magazine notes, and both have traditionally used the German mark as the main unit of currency.

"In theory, the switch to the Balkan euro should be an opportunity to smoke out criminal fortunes and pull more savings into the formal economy," the magazine writes. Authorities limited the number of German marks people could convert to cash euros to 10,000 (5,100 euros or $4,550). Above that amount, you had to open a bank account. "The Economist" says "In Kosovo, the results were spectacular.... [M]ore than 1 billion German marks has been deposited since 2 January. An impressive vote of confidence, then, for the seven local banks licensed to deal in euros."

Montenegrins, in contrast, remained skeptical of assurances that their cash could be taken to the bank without facing tough questions. Only a few million German marks have been deposited, the magazine says. Instead, property prices have risen as people convert their German cash into brick-and-mortar assets.


Writing in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Volker Zastrow looks at the rivalry between the two potential challengers to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in upcoming elections. Zastrow says that Angela Merkel, the chairwoman of the Christian Democrats, is fighting for the candidacy "with no regard for potential losses. Leading party members are now hoping that she will give up before it is too late." Zastrow adds the support and confidence that she previously enjoyed has been running out.

Zastrow says the chairman of the Christian Social Union, Edmund Stoiber, has already been chosen to challenge Schroeder. And no one, he says, wants "a full-blown fight for power." Such a fight, he adds, "could become a debacle for the party chairwoman. And a campaign based on a landscape of smoking ruins would give even Mr. Stoiber only a slim chance of being elected, although his starting position is actually quite favorable." Zastrow says the Christian Democratic leadership "is now focusing its efforts on the task of making its chairwoman realize that the battle for the candidacy has already run its course and that more fighting will only do damage."


In a news analysis published in today's "International Herald Tribune," David E. Sanger of "The New York Times" writes that the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has entered what he calls a "murkier, messier phase." Sanger says events have forced the U.S. leadership to develop a "more diffuse, complex strategy." He writes: "What just weeks ago looked like a ruthlessly effective war from the air now looks like police work on hostile ground."

Sanger says these new complexities are evident in how the U.S. administration discusses the campaign, and also in what they have suddenly chosen not to talk about. He writes: "At the Pentagon this week, officials announced that they were no longer going to provide regular updates on the manhunt. [The] prospect of war between India and Pakistan now consumes more of the attention of [U.S. President George W.] Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Senior administration officials are still engaged in an internal debate over whether to open a second front -- and, if so, where. If the time is not ripe to take on [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein, should the United States set its sights on Somalia and Southeast Asia?"

But even as those debates continue, Sanger notes, America's most-wanted man, Osama bin Laden, remains unaccounted for. The White House, he concludes, still "seems not to have many ready answers about its own next moves."


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses the failure yesterday of ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova to win enough support to be elected president of Kosovo in the second round of voting in the elected provincial assembly.

"To say that the first steps are always difficult is an understatement," writes the editorial. The leading parties of the Kosovo-Albanian majority were incapable of reaching a compromise in power-sharing, says the paper, although they did achieve a two-thirds majority in the elections of 17 November.

The paper says disputes between Rugova and the former chief of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci, have turned parliament "into a stage for tragicomic machinations." This is indeed regrettable, says the commentary, as the Albanians shed so much blood to achieve self-government. Yet, as long as they are not capable of sharing power in a civilized manner, the state is bound to steer Kosovo's fate and protect the Serbian minority.


In the French daily "Liberation," Marc Semo also looks at the 10 January presidential elections in Kosovo. Semo says Rugova, the charismatic leader of one decade of civil resistance against the Serbs, "is, today, in a situation that is humiliating, at the very least."

To get out of this position, Semo says, Rugova must obtain the support of two other Albanian parties -- the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) or the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK). But Semo says "no agreement has been found to date between these parties, [which are] divided by deep personal and political rivalries, even if they share the same objective of an independent Kosovo."

The other solution, he says, is to gain the support of the non-Albanian ethnic minority deputies. But Semo notes this would be "a difficult choice for the moderate nationalist Ibrahim Rugova, who [has] refused either to make concessions to the hard-line Albanian camp or to make promises to the Serb deputies."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," economic policy expert Margot Machol says, "Despite paying lip service to many reforms recommended by outside experts, Balkan governments continue to adhere to the old socialist way of doing things."

Machol and her colleagues conducted research into the factors preventing competition, investment, and regional trade in Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro. They sought to discover if businesses throughout the region experienced the same economic difficulties.

Machol says the most startling result is that businesses "were significantly hampered in their ability to grow by the same three government-created problems: arbitrary, inconsistent customs regulations and enforcement; the rate, frequency of change and inconsistent administration of taxes; and a lack of transparent, consistent information about government policies and procedures."

Overwhelmingly, she says, businesses reported that "their most significant obstacles to being competitive were government laws and regulations."

The positive message of the study, says Machol, is that businesses in the Balkans "are industrious and entrepreneurial. If Balkan governments improve their policies, companies can become prosperous and competitive. Foreign aid to the region should emphasize the need for local governments to change bureaucratic policies," she says.

Machol concludes: "With a level playing field, reduced taxes and customs costs, and transparent information available to all, businesses in the Balkans can provide an engine for economic growth in the region."


A Stratfor analysis looks at the recent intensification of Russia's campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Stratfor says the escalation "was notable for its lack of attention internationally."

Washington's attitude "toward the alleged Russian atrocities that seem to go hand in hand with its military actions" has changed in recent months, says the analysis. Before 11 September, "the Bush administration [used] heavy diplomatic pressure on Moscow to seek a peace settlement in Chechnya, to investigate more thoroughly alleged abuses by Russian soldiers and allow international observers into the republic. But since Moscow began supplying personnel, materiel and intelligence for the anti-terror effort, Washington has been largely silent."

Stratfor says the U.S. has also begun "quietly [working] to disband the financial network that supports the Chechen rebellion." It says the change in the government's stance on the Chechen issue "became much more formal December 28, when during an interview with Echo Moscow radio, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow directly linked elements of Al-Qaeda to some of the fighters in Chechnya."

Stratfor writes: "Such a public statement is a far cry from what the 54-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe asserted in May 2000, when it said that Chechnya was an international issue and Russia was in the wrong."

Stratfor concludes that Washington has now left the Chechens on their own.


Switzerland's "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" discusses the euro's reception in various European Union countries. The commentary notes that whenever the EU has put into effect an ambitious plan combined with a clear timetable, the project has been a success. This also applies to the euro, which is having "the side-effect of awakening curiosity and interest in countries which, for various reasons, are standing on the sidelines."

This holds true for the Scandinavian countries in particular, which are having second thoughts about their decision not to join the euro-zone. There is a growing interest in both Sweden and Denmark to participate, says the editorial. It says Italy is the only country that is averse to submitting wholeheartedly to EU policies, although it has introduced the euro.


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Christian Wernicker also speaks of "the enticing call of the euro." He says that within a scant two weeks, the common currency is having a "magic and magnetic effect."

Suddenly, there is euro-phoria in countries in which it was not worth a cent before, he says. This has become most evident in Sweden. But in Denmark, too, where there was not much sympathy for EU politics, Foreign Minister Per Stig Mueller is now in favor of another national referendum on the euro.

Wernicker says countries still rejecting the euro may be risking political isolation. But if the three holdout countries -- Sweden, Denmark, and Britain -- do not eventually accept the euro, then at least the other EU countries will be clear on their position. In that case, he says, the French and the Finns, the Belgians, as well as the Germans, will be on their own in designing political unity in Europe until 2004.


A "Eurasia View" analysis looks at two recent reports on Afghanistan's reconstruction process published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The paper says both reports "raise concerns that the existing state-building framework may be inadequate to stabilize the war-ravaged country."

The analysis says one of the studies, "Rebuilding Afghanistan: Fantasy Versus Reality," suggests the goal of reconstructing Afghanistan into "a secular, multi-ethnic and democratic state [is] unrealistic at present." The report suggests Afghanistan's recent history of incessant conflict makes only the avoidance of more major hostilities and the securing of main trade routes reasonable goals.

The paper also cites the report as saying that in order to minimize interethnic tension, economic assistance efforts should be decentralized to allow for the distribution of aid directly to Afghanistan's regions.

The paper says the other Carnegie study -- "Preventing New Afghanistans: A Regional Strategy for Reconstruction" -- "emphasizes regional economic development as the key to stabilization." It says the international community must act to demilitarize Afghan society and eradicate poppy cultivation, which allows Islamic radicals to fund their cause through drug trafficking. The analysis cites the report as saying the international community should also "vigorously promote market reforms in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, especially Uzbekistan."

The analysis suggests that "steadily rising living standards in the region would reduce the attraction of radical Islamic ideas."

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