International Papers

Chechnya: The New Nightmare

“More French slurry,” the headline over an editorial in the Times of London Wednesday, neatly linked the scandal over what France feeds its cattle with another mess that has forced the resignation of French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The departure of Strauss-Kahn amid corruption and forgery allegations led the front pages of both French and German newspapers and was described by Die Welt as a “disaster” for the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Many other papers agreed. The Times editorial said, “[T]he French political firmament … has abruptly darkened with sinister portents.” Jospin “owes his popularity in large part to his image as M Propre, a decent man who marks a break with the permeating sleaze of the long Mitterrand years,” it said. “But the scandal in which M Strauss-Kahn is embroiled, the allegedly illegal use of MNEF, a student health insurance fund, to channel illicit funds to Socialist Party coffers, involves a host of M Jospin’s close collaborators. … France could be in for a period of weakened, indecisive government. Le Figaro of Paris agreed that Jospin would be weakened, but in an editorial congratulated both Strauss-Kahn on his “panache” in resigning so quickly, and the French people on their desire “that Latin societies behave more and more like Anglo-Saxon ones in demanding responsibility and probity from their leaders.”

The Financial Times said in an editorial that with the departure of the euro-zone’s most influential finance minister, it isn’t clear who will provide leadership for the European currency bloc. In an op-ed piece, the FT said that “abroad he was the most important symbol of the Jospin government’s credibility and its willingness to modernise the state by reducing the overbearing role of the public sector.” But the International Herald Tribune reported, with apparent surprise, that the euro, which Strauss-Kahn helped bring into being in January, has hardly moved on the foreign exchange markets. “Perhaps as a reflection of France’s relatively smaller economic role, Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s exit appeared to create little concern and have much less impact internationally than the resignation in March for political reasons of his German Social Democratic counterpart, Oskar Lafontaine.”

The British newspapers led mainly on what the Times described as an “astonishing climbdown” by the British government in its Mad Cow trade war with France. Despite a European Commission finding that British beef is as safe as any in Europe and that France, which has been accused of putting human excrement in its cattle feed, should lift its unilateral ban on it, the papers reported that Britain yielded to French demands for further safety checks. The Independent of London, however, fronted a gruesome eyewitness report from Ingushetia, a tiny republic bordering Chechnya, where some 193,000 Chechen refugees are believed to have fled. Describing the terrible injuries inflicted on some of them by Russia’s “massive and indiscriminate artillery and air bombardment of towns and villages” in Chechnya, its correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, wrote that one third of the Chechen population, numbering about 1 million people, is now in flight. “What is happening is a tragedy equal to anything witnessed in Kosovo or East Timor earlier in the year,” he claimed.

In an editorial, the Independent called the near-silence of Western politicians on the matter shameful. “In Oslo yesterday, President Clinton ‘expressed concern,’ diplo-speak for doing as little as possible,” it said. “This do-nothing policy is lethal. Here, unlike the situation in Kosovo, military intervention is neither necessary nor practicable. Tough diplomacy and economic threats are, however, essential if the lunacy is to be reversed.”

In a bitter editorial Wednesday, the Moscow Times compared Russia’s behavior in Chechnya with NATO’s in Kosovo, in which each argued vainly to the other that there could be no military solution. “Now Kosovo is de facto partitioned, Albanians won’t let Russian KFOR forces take up their positions, Slobodan Milosevic is as mighty as ever, and the Kosovo Liberation Army has yet to disarm; while Russia is weeding out terrorism in Chechnya by herding refugees under carpet bombing,” it said. “And wherever one looks, there is the illusion of victory. President Bill Clinton and [Russian] Prime Minister Vladimir Putin play the role of the world’s grave statesmen, and their governments sacrifice civilians to the greater good. But the horrors are not exorcised, only deferred to future administrations.”

After the controversy surrounding his visits to Britain and France, Chinese President Jiang Zemin had a very easy week in Saudi Arabia, where the leading Saudi paper Asharq al-Awsat even congratulated China on its resistance to political reform. Its editor, Abderrahman al-Rashed, wrote Tuesday in his daily column that “fortunately for the Chinese–and for the rest of us–China did not go the way of the former Soviet Union when the Berlin Wall collapsed ten years ago. It did not take a sudden lurch to the right, as the Russians did to their peril.” Asharq al-Awsat was euphoric about China as a potential market for its oil and as “an investors’ paradise” of which Saudi Arabia wanted a part. The paper also talked up the “spiritual” side of the Saudi-Chinese relationship: “Over 50 million Chinese follow the Muslim faith, and the number of Chinese pilgrims to Saudi holy sites is set to increase, thus helping to further common understanding between the two nations.”

Australia’s most famous ex-citizen, Rupert Murdoch, came out firmly for a republic in an interview Wednesday with his newspaper, the Australian. He said Australia would suffer a “loss of self-respect” if it decided to retain the monarchy in Saturday’s referendum. “The British monarchy has become irrelevant to this generation of Australians,” he said. “It’s not just a question of the monarchy, it’s a question of whether Australia has any self-confidence.” Murdoch, who is now an American citizen, criticized Australian Prime Minister John Howard for opposing a republic and said Howard was generally too “timid” in his reforms. “I know a lot of Australia is conservative and has resisted change, but the radical policies that Thatcher and Reagan brought in are now bearing fruit,” he said. “Those two countries [Britain and the United States] are leading the world in gains in productivity and a higher living standard.”