Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000
U K P R E S S R E V I E W:
Pawns on a Chessboard?
Central Europe through British eyes this week
In his review in The Independent last weekend of Misha Glenny's new book The Balkans 1804-1999, Paul Bailey notes Glenny's argument that all Balkan nations have felt betrayed by the outside world at some stage in their history - the outside world meaning Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the US, Italy and Russia. These "outside" states, the seven Great Powers of 1914, dreamt up a series of schemes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to settle international disputes which amounted to "nothing more than an absurd chess game, with the principal players invariably making the wrong moves." Probably the same could be said of Great Power policy towards Central Europe as a whole.
Wedged in, shut out
Britain, once an undisputed Great Power and still a significant player, has long tended to view the region as a zone of competing influences. This attitude tends to be reflected in press coverage of the area, which when it looks at particular countries, focuses mostly on the internal affairs of Russia and Germany plus the troubled zones of the Caucasus and the former Yugoslavia. Coverage of internal issues in most CEE states is relatively minimal - the best regular source being the Financial Times.
Britain is usually happier to think in terms of "high politics," of alliances, spheres of influence and balances of power. Change in Russia, therefore, offers an opportunity to focus on the region through the Great Power mindset. What effect will the predicted and reasonably comfortable victory of Vladimir Putin in the presidential election have on Central European states? Sadly, the British press had relatively little to say on this aspect of events in the Kremlin this past week, preferring to concentrate on the possible consequences for the Russian economy and society and for bilateral relations between Russia and Britain (Tony Blair having been, earlier in March, the first Western leader to pay a visit to Putin) and between Russia and the USA.
But Putin's election, based around a platform of strengthening Russia, will, of course, sharpen the focus on the position of CEE states, wedged in between various Great Powers that have historically dominated the region. Will they be able to look west without worrying about events going on behind them? How will the planned eastward march of the NATO and EU frontiers fit in with a Russia that may wish to assert its interests in the states on its western and southern borders?
What comment on the issue has existed has been of considerable interest. The Economist (1 April 2000) focused on Polish fears that Russia will draw both Belarus and the Ukraine tight into the Russian fold. Poles are nervous and are publicly looking forward to improving frosty relations with Russia, but "privately, several leading Poles in the government say they fear that Mr Putin is a 'Chekist [Communist-era secret service] neo-imperialist,' strong on state control and weak on democracy. Exactly the sort of Russian, in other words, to remind Poles that Russian troops were on their soil for most of the past three centuries."
David Hearst in The Guardian argued that Putin's victory confirmed that Russia had been lost to the West and that this would remain the case unless Western policy towards it changed: "NATO would have to stop expanding, and the problems of Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Ukraine addressed... None of this is likely."
In contrast, Quentin Peel in the Financial Times ("Hungarian aspirations turn from east to west," 30 March) found that Hungarians are little bothered about who governs Russia. "In Budapest, there is only one international issue that really matters: how and when Hungary will join the European Union. All else is secondary. The focus that was once overwhelmingly on the east has turned west. They are not watching the words of Vladimir Putin but of Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission in Brussels."
Peel argues that the clouds that might appear over Budapest soon seem to be coming from the west at present: Hungary's failure to suspend bilateral relations with Austria since the rise of the Freedom Party has disappointed the 14 other EU member states, who were already dragging their heels over Hungary's EU accession date. Together with the ambivalence felt by Hungarians towards their membership in NATO, since the Kosovo bombing campaign last year, such friction has improved the electoral prospects of Joerg Haider's Hungarian counterpart, István Csurka and his Justice and Life Party (MIÉP). The EU accession story will run and run... let's just hope it gets serious discussion in the UK press.
The Stability Pact
This week, the major Western powers were also at work wielding their ability to exert influence (and open up new markets) in the countries at the southern end of Central Europe. At the previous week's EU summit in Lisbon, there was a clear determination to tackle the lack of progress made by the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe. Then, at a two-day conference in Brussels, representatives of 80 countries pledged up to EUR 2 billion in a reconstruction package designed to improve infrastructure in the Balkans. Under the pact, no aid is to be given to Yugoslavia, as long as Slobodan Milošević's regime remains in power, the funds instead being targeted at Yugoslavia's neighbours: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Romania.
The policy is designed to encourage successful, West-aligned governments in these countries, through promoting international trade and prosperity, and to exert pressure for change in Yugoslavia. Chris Patten - once a British cabinet minister, then the last Governor of Hong Kong and now the EU commissioner for external relations - claimed that "a ring of democracy is starting to take shape around Serbia."
"The EU is making a determined effort to Europeanise the south-east corner of the continent - and answer US criticism that it is not doing enough," wrote Ian Black in The Guardian. "In return for aid and investment under the Stability Pact, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Romania have all committed themselves to democratic and economic reform and creating a stable environment that will attract private investment."
But a leader in The Economist suggested that the focus of the Stability Pact on the ring around Yugoslavia could mean ignoring the possibility that the biggest danger in the region could emerge from within Yugoslavia itself: in the republic of Montenegro, whose president, Milo Đukanović, is currently at serious loggerheads with Milošević and is enduring economic pressure from Belgrade. "In sensitive spots like Macedonia, Kosovo and, above all, Montenegro, the swift dispatch of relatively small sums of financial assistance could well make the difference between peace and war. Many European politicians understand this perfectly well, but their collective response to the need has shown up many of the EU's worst features: introversion, lack of urgency and an obsession with arcane technicalities." Indeed, those things do sound familiar when it comes to EU policy on the Balkans.
Last week, this column focused on the heated issue of the growing number of asylum seekers in Britain and the media's excessive focus on organised begging by Romani women. With Britain's new asylum laws coming into place on 1 April, there were further skirmishes this week between the opposing forces at either end of the press's political spectrum. However, the focus seems to have drifted away from the specific attention paid to Roma, which had characterised the stories of the previous fortnight.
Richard Price supplied further Daily Mail scare stories (such as "Asylum seekers in mass brawl," 31 March), while the Evening Standard revealed that London was bearing the brunt of supporting asylum seekers: 60,000 at present, at a cost of over GBP 200 million a year (all reimbursed to councils by central government, as the Standard notes.) The London borough bearing the greatest burden, at 5800 asylum-seekers, is Newham, which already contains one of London's most ethnically mixed communities. (It also happens to be where I live and I'm not aware of any problems; I think we cope with the situation quite happily.) Two days later, the same paper reported a call by the leader of a London council for 100 asylum camps to be built in unused buildings around the country.
In its efforts to stem the inflow of refugees seeking asylum, the UK government has seemed to model its new policy on that of Germany, which has succeeded in cutting its intake by around 75 per cent. But German policy came under attack this week from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for overenthusiastically "dumping" murderers and other criminals back into Kosovo, which is clearly not short of assimilation problems at present.
But the German experience also reflected badly on Britain, as Christian Jennings reported in The Independent ("Germany deports 'murderers' back home to Kosovo," 31 March): "German public opinion has been outraged by crimes committed by refugees and others from Kosovo and other Balkan provinces, but the country has long been the most generous in Western Europe in giving a safe haven to those fleeing civil war and economic privation. Germany has repeatedly demanded that its EU partners agree to a formal system of 'burden-sharing,' with quotas of asylum seekers allocated to each country. But these entreaties have fallen largely on deaf ears, with the principal opposition to the Germans' plan coming from Britain."
Oliver Craske, 1 April 2000
David Hearst, "How Russia was lost," The Guardian, 27 March 2000.
Saba Salman, "Call for 100 'asylum camps,'" Evening Standard, 31 March 2000.
David Shaw, "60,000 now seeking London asylum," Evening Standard, 29 March 2000.
Alan Travis, "From refugees to political footballs," The Guardian, 30 March 2000.
Stephen Castle, "West will give GBP 1 bn for building projects in Balkans," The Independent, 30 March 2000.
Ian Black, "EU rewards Balkans' loyalty with GBP 1.3 bn," The Guardian, 30 March 2000.
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