The momentous events in the voting booths and on the streets of Yugoslavia were covered in great detail this week. Of course, by the time this article has been published, the situation may have changed entirely, which puts me in a position not unlike those in the British print media whose reports, analyses, forecasts and counsels are the subject of this column.
All the British press accepted that Vojislav Koštunica comfortably won the first ballot for the Presidency, only for the Federal Election Commission to rig the results and call for a second round. One way their coverage differed was in the advice each newspaper's lead article gave to Koštunica now.
The Daily Telegraph (28 September) endorsed as "the correct response" Koštunica's position of refusing to compete in the proposed second ballot because victory had been denied him by "political fraud and blatant stealing of votes." Instead, Koštunica called for massive street protests and general strikes in order to bring down Milošević. The Telegraph's Garland produced a cartoon in which Slobodan Milošević avoids a succession of bombs, missiles and bullets only to be struck down by a ballot paper landing on his head.
On the same day, The Guardian took the very different view that Koštunica's decision to boycott the second round "may prove to be a mistake of historic proportions" since it would enable Milošević to claim victory by constitutional means in an unopposed election. Instead, it recommends that Serbs and Montenegrins should go to the polls on 8 October and "kick the bastard out."
During the week, The Guardian tracked the apparent disintegration of the President's support mechanisms. On 26 September, Maggie O'Kane reported that Milošević could no longer count on the support of the army or the police force (except, perhaps, for his special police forces). On 27 September, Ian Traynor sensed that Russia, "his most important, if ambivalent, international ally was walking away." And on 28 September, O'Kane observed that Milošević was "even beginning to lose control of one of his most powerful weapons"-government television stations.
"How might Milošević react?" wondered Jonathan Steele and Gillian Sandford in The Guardian (28 September). They ventured that, though "his record of bloodshed is spread across the Balkans... he has also retreated when the odds have been overwhelming," as in the conflict with NATO in 1999 (albeit after 78 days).
The outcome may as yet be uncertain, but this has not deterred some commentators from making judgments. Jonathan Steele (The Guardian, 26 September) declared that "Serbia is back on the road to sanity at last."
Also writing in The Guardian, Martin Woollacott (29 September) ventured that the election result was "a repudiation of war as a means of pursuing national objectives," which meant that, "it is at last possible to say that the Balkan wars are over." Woollacott saw this as "some sort of vindication for recent Western policy, for all its imperfections and errors. Western leaders did, in the end, rid themselves of the habit of consulting with the chief arsonist about how to put out fires."
But he did not rule out "some kind of terminal struggle" by Milošević or further bloodshed in "such places as Kosovo, Montenegro or Albania." It would be a rash person who did that. As Misha Glenny commented in The Times (18 September), "When the Serbs make history, it is usually a nasty business."
Prague welcomes the international community
At the IMF-World Bank summit in Prague, miscellaneous anti-capitalists, environmentalists and anarchists greeted the fair city with a combination of diligent peaceful protesting and serious minority-led rioting, forcing an early finish to the annual financial jamboree.
The British press documented how policemen fired tear gas and water cannons at the rioters and in turn were bombarded with Molotov cocktails and cobblestones prised from Prague streets. Cars were vandalised, tires were burned, and there was the expected window-smashing at branches of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as well as a Mercedes dealership. Some protesters tried to storm the conference centre and nearly succeeded; several delegates were injured, and they were prevented from leaving for up to 12 hours on the first day.
Nevertheless, Katharine Viner (The Guardian, 29 September) felt that we should not be distracted by the violence committed by "1-2% of the 15,000 protesters," and that we were witnessing "the most significant political movement to emerge in a generation."
The day before, Daniel Johnson in the Telegraph had castigated the "spoilt middle-class protesters who exploit the Czech Republic's freedom... All they want is a good riot to enliven the monotony of their bourgeois lives." (Funny to hear defenders of capitalism use the word "bourgeois" with such venom.) In response, Viner noted that anti-IMF/World Bank protests originated not in the rich North but in the poorer South, and over a decade ago.
The violence was, however, uniformly condemned. The Guardian (29 September) noted the value of the demonstrators' arguments, while disapproving of the violence which not only caused suffering and destruction, but also "discredits the protest movement's claim to be peaceful and constructive." Insisting that the movement has helped move the debate on, the paper called for reform rather than abolition of the global financial institutions but demanded they deliver on their promises of debt relief and poverty reduction.
Denmark says nej, and other stories
In a week of significant events in the region, one cannot overlook several other stories in the UK press this week. The Danish electorate's rejection of the single currency in the referendum of 28 September has major implications for the EU's future.
Most initial coverage concentrated on the parallels for Britain, which like Denmark had stayed out of the euro avant-garde, and which is now probably less likely to opt for an early referendum on the issue. This surely means a de facto two-speed EU. "It could also mean," The Guardian noted (29 September), "that, with the exception of member-elect Greece, the next country to join euroland will be from central or eastern Europe."
The Guardian's Europhile regular columnist Hugo Young trailed a speech to be given in Warsaw by Prime Minister Tony Blair on 6 October. Young claimed that Blair planed to present his "pragmatic vision" of the EU's future, and might call for a second chamber of the European Parliament composed of representatives from national parliaments. London wishes to forestall any attempt to give more power to the existing chamber and, furthermore, is not in a hurry to rush into an EU constitution because, Young holds, Blair prioritises EU enlargement. "With France and Germany going cold on enlargement, we can expect Blair in Warsaw to summon Europe to its wider destiny-but not with the destructive purposes that lay behind the Thatcher-Major regime's adoption of the same cause." Confident words, yet surely the jury is still out on the current Government's motives in European policy.
Toby Helm's article in The Daily Telegraph on 28 September was the latest to highlight the problems facing Polish farmers as their country prepares itself for EU accession. Helm focused on fears that Germans plan to buy up agricultural land near the border, which was theirs until 1945, leading to a collapse in Polish farming. Polish ministers have called for an 18-year transition period following enlargement during which current restrictions on land sales would remain. Helm suggests this is unlikely, since "open markets and free movement of capital are sacred principles of the EU." Maybe. But Germans and Austrians nervous about an influx of migrants from the East have already called for transitional restrictions on immigration, and it would seem conceivable a deal might be done in this area.
One final note: the controversial introduction in the UK last April of a voucher scheme to provide benefits to asylum applicants is a topic covered before in this column (see "Women and Children First"). There was strong criticism of it at the Labour Party's annual conference in Brighton this week. The scheme itself will continue, but the pressure has forced the Government to agree to reconsider the terms of what The Guardian called "one of its most egregious programmes." (29 September)
Oliver Craske, 30 September 2000
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