It was quite a week for UK press coverage of the various Yugoslav republics, past and present. After eight years, Yugoslavia was readmitted to the UN in succession to the old socialist federal republic: "Diplomats said that the decision followed heavy pressure from America's UN envoy, Richard Holbrooke," commented Jonathan Steele in The Guardian (2 November).
Local elections in Kosovo saw victory for the moderate but still pro-independence favourite candidate, Ibrahim Rugova. "The widespread assumption, encouraged by Mr Rugova, that the polls mark the beginning of a rapid, inevitable march to full independence should be treated with extreme caution," mused a leader in The Guardian (31 October).
Meanwhile, Channel 4 News revealed the existence of secret tape recordings which provide evidence of late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's close involvement in war crimes in Bosnia and indicate that he and his henchmen stole GBP one billion from his country (The Independent, 1 November).
Will American withdraw from the Balkans?
However, of particular interest in the final week before the US presidential elections was the revelation that the US may support independence for Kosovo, a change of policy apparently unwelcome to just about everyone except Kosovar Albanians.
The "senior State Department source" that mooted the idea was speaking following "secret discussions" during a visit to the Balkans by none other than Richard Holbrooke (The Independent, 30 October). Holbrooke is well established as the Clinton administration's Balkan policy chief and, should Al Gore win the US election next week, may end up as Secretary of State.
The Independent described the US idea as "a move which would lead to a serious rift with its European allies and hostility from Russia." However, it also noted that "there is speculation that they may be floating a trial balloon to test reaction in the region and among their allies."
The Guardian (31 October) suggested the following:
It may be an attempt to jolt the other NATO allies into focusing on Kosovo's final status. Or it may relate to Washington politics. George W Bush has pledged to run down the US military presence in the Balkans should he become president. With Milošević gone (but not Serb nationalism) the US may be tempted to declare the Balkan problem solved and back out fast. This would be as unrealistic and premature as Mr Rugova's call for immediate recognition of an independent state.
Britain opposes US change in policy
According to John Phillips in The Times (2 November), a "senior British source" told the Americans that Kosovo independence would create "a festering sore in the Balkans." Phillips reported that "Britain does not want to see more mini-states created in the region and doubts that Kosovo's war-ravaged economy would be able to support an independent state." The Guardian leader agreed that Kosovo is "neither economically viable nor politically stable enough at present to make it on its own."
Holbrooke responded by denying the US had changed its policy, stating that he merely believed the UN Resolution 1244 did not rule out independence for Kosovo (The Independent, 2 November).
What was going on here? Perhaps Holbrooke changed his mind. Or perhaps it was just a "trial balloon." But it is a funny time to take soundings. Press briefings from senior State Department sources announcing U-turns do not occur by accident in the week before an election. The Washington politics angle may be crucial.
On 24 October, Hugo Young wrote in The Guardian:
We now know Bush has every intention of withdrawing American troops from the Balkans, as part of a philosophy which is working towards an end to interventionism anywhere on any grounds other than US strategic interest.
He also noted that Bush's foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in calling for Europeans to take over peacekeeping missions in Europe from the Americans, had let slip her apparent ignorance of the fact that 80 per cent of the force in Bosnia and Kosovo is already European.
Isolationism plays well in American elections. Incoming administrations are frequently inexperienced in foreign affairs, and Bush has famously demonstrated gaps in his knowledge of world leaders. However, even this can work to his advantage since it gives more credibility to his reassuringly domestic world-view.
Could the State Department leak have been merely an attempt by the Democratic camp to neutralise Bush's appeal to American isolationism (a policy never officially adopted), which would then be quietly dropped if Gore were to be elected? Maybe so. But John Gray suggested this week that "whether it is Al Gore or George W Bush who wins next week, America looks set to loosen its ties with Europe." (The Guardian, 1 November).
In the 1990s, America showed a capacity for drawing the wrong lessons from events in the former Yugoslav republics. For instance, drawing the conclusion that NATO air strikes alone (rather than in combination with Croatian ground offensives) had been the key to coercing the Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian war, led to the US's false expectations of the Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999.
Now the fear may be that the coming America will not care enough to make those decisions, whether correct or incorrect. Will America now wash its hands of non-essential foreign entanglements and hide behind its National Missile Defense Shield, with all the possible consequences of this for NATO, regional stability and European security? It is a long way off yet, but the election on 7 November may see the US take another step down a road by which it has been increasingly tempted since the end of the Cold War.
In Germany, coke is it!
Germans were shocked and amused when a program on the Sat-1 television channel uncovered that traces of cocaine had been found on 22 out of 28 toilet seats in the lower house of parliament in Berlin's new Reichstag. The British press rather enjoyed the story too.
Under the sharp headline "In the Corridors of Powder...", John Hooper reported in The Guardian (2 November) that "most difficult to explain was the fact that the toilets used by visitors showed no traces of cocaine at all... At the least it raises a suspicion that the loquacity of some MPs and the vigorous intensity of their speeches owes less to political passion than regular lines of star dust."
Politicians and civil servants dismissed the results of the test, carried out by a respected Nuremberg pharmaceutical institute. But in the Financial Times (3 November), under the less inspired headline "German MPs Sniffy over Cocaine," Haig Simonian noted that the best effort of the press office in the Bundestag to cast doubt on the allegations was to claim that the toilets were cleaned daily, or sometimes twice a day: which only boggles the mind further.
The dot-com drug
Only a day earlier, Roger Boyes had used his column in The Times (1 November) to discuss the issue of cocaine abuse in Germany, which he described as "the demon of the moment" in that nation's press. He contrasted the new economy, in which cocaine is "part and parcel of the accelerating Germany... the dot-com drug," with Germans' traditional measured approach to the economy, whereby decisions "should be chewed over carefully, like a dentured pensioner eating meatballs." In a rapidly changing society, with some echoes of the hedonistic melting pot that was 1920s Berlin, "Germans, cushioned from risk for so long, seem to be living on the frosted edge."
The discovery in the Reichstag's restrooms follows the sacking just two weeks ago of Christophe Daum, the German national football team's coach-designate. Daum also resigned from his job coaching the club Bayer Leverkusen at the same time. He had agreed to supply a strand of hair for testing in order to quell drug rumours, and promptly tested positive for cocaine.
This was big news: The Guardian had covered it on 23 October in their International News section, rather than under Sport. The verdict (again that of John Hooper) had been: "His downfall is to German sport what the scandal over the illegal funding of the Christian Democratic party under the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been to German politics."
An almighty gaffe
The current German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was in Israel this week, where he "committed one of the most embarrassing gaffes that a German leader could make," according to a report in The Times (1 November). The "hapless Schröder" (The Guardian, 1 November) had been taken by Israeli Premier Ehud Barak to pay his respects at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, where, turning a handle in an attempt to boost the eternal flame that honours the six million dead of the Holocaust, he accidentally extinguished it.
Briefly Schröder must have wished the ground would swallow him up, neither he nor Barak being able to relight the flame until an employee did the trick with a cigarette lighter. Was the Chancellor practising the dousing of fires on his Middle East peace visit? Or were his hands perhaps a little shaky after a visit to the toilet beforehand?
Oliver Craske, 3 November 2000
Apologies for an error two weeks ago in this column, whereby we reported that Sir Paddy Ashdown, former leader of Britain's centrist Liberal Democrats, had served in the SAS. In fact, it was the Special Boat Service.
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